“Libraries are not just about books,” said Jerry Keiser, executive director of the Seaford District Library. “We’re more of the heart of the community.”
That concept is why it’s welcome news that Delaware libraries are doing more to help a society transformed by the pandemic.
The latest prominent upgrades include statewide expansion of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library – a program giving books to very young children, encouraging them to read – and offering homework help in western Sussex County.
And libraries are reopening buildings, with Dover the latest to make plans to do so, starting Nov. 3.
When the governor declared a state of emergency in March, all 35 public libraries closed their doors to the public and “immediately expanded services, “said Annie Norman, the state librarian.
Libraries first pivoted by adding wireless service to parking lots. “Now we have requests to add additional outdoor wireless to cover more of the outdoor space,” she said.
“A library consultant is now meeting with each library to plan for further development of outdoor spaces to expand more services outdoors (like restaurants have been doing),” she added.
All 35 also offer curbside pickup of reserved materials, with the Appoquinimink School District apparently became the first district in the state to do so for students.
“We want to get books into children’s hands,” explained Susan Austin, the library media specialist at Bunker Hill Elementary and Delaware’s 2020 School Librarian of the Year. “Holding a book, turning the pages, snapping the cover closed when you reach the end of the story, these are tactile experiences that children love.”
Appoquinimink’s program began Sept. 21 with five elementary schools and is planned to expand.
Health and wellbeing
Libraries are increasingly a place where people can connect with supportive agencies, such as the Delaware Department of Labor and the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services.
The Delaware Academy of Medicine agreed with the importance of libraries to community wellbeing by devoting most of its latest Delaware Journal of Public Health to the issue.
“At all times, and especially during these tumultuous times of worldwide pandemic and social strife, our public libraries continue to play a critical role on behalf of our publics’ health and wellbeing,” Dr. Omar A. Khan and Timothy E. Gibbs of the academy wrote in an introduction to the 88-page issue. “We applaud the critical role of libraries in taking us on the arc from Data to Wisdom, ultimately to improved health for all Delawareans.”
Connections are better when they’re in person, and libraries are reopening buildings to patrons. But the situation varies greatly at the 35 libraries because they’re run by 24 operators, including counties, municipalities and independent boards.
“We’re experimenting in different ways,” Norman said. “We’re trying out, learning and sharing.”
The state library catalog includes another three dozen specialized libraries, such as the Colonial School District, Norman said. That means Colonial students can access material from across the state.
The Cape Henlopen District was the first of several districts to ask for their students to get electronic library cards so that they can access digital media from the state catalog, she said.
“We absolutely want to support that,” Norman said, “but we’re afraid of having sufficient funds.”
Patrons allowed back in
Libraries that reopen, of course, must follow government rules on indoor spaces. The latest guidance from the Delaware Division of Libraries calls for two more industry rules: moving services outside or virtually, when possible, and quarantining items for 72 hours before returning them to use. “The quarantine may be modified based on the results of the research when complete,” the guidelines said.
The Milford Public Library in July started using a machine that can sterilize books in 60 seconds.
It will be a quantum leap when Dover reopens: Its building is the largest public library in the state.
The Seaford library began its soft reopening on July 6. The building was rearranged for COVID-19 guidelines, and when it’s open, “we’re following all the commonsense precautions that we all take,” said Rachel Wackett, deputy executive director.
Reopening was important because it’s Sussex County’s only site for essential tests, such as for real estate licenses and the high school equivalency called General Educational Development. In the first five months after the governor’s emergency declaration, it hosted 354 such tests.
The library says its “most notable and benevolent number” of the year is 17,224: the number of lunches served to needy children in the first five months of the emergency.
On Sept. 28, the Seaford Library announced Brainfuse, which offers free online tutoring, a writing lab and other learning support tools for students and adults. The program – also available through libraries in Bridgeville, Delmar and Laurel – is funded by the Sussex County Department of Libraries.
One impressive feature is called Live Tutoring, which offers personalized, recordable sessions 2-11 p.m. in test prep, skill building and homework.
“Students are coming to the library, masked and observing social distance, but also trying to actively find learning solutions like forming learning pods,” Wackett said. “Providing equity for students is a huge issue for us, and that is where Brainfuse comes in.”