Essential: Local libraries meet evolving needs during the pandemic

By Emily Spacek

An estimated one million people pass through the doors of the Main City Library every year, logging on to the library’s public computers, checking out the latest display of new books, or simply watching the magnificent glass elevators float up and down while enjoying a warm cup of coffee.

With youngsters dragging parents by the arm towards the children’s atrium, students and learners of all ages posted in southern-facing tables overlooking the sunlit valley, movie-goers gleefully waiting in line at the Nancy Tessman Auditorium and passersby ducking in to escape a winter’s cold or summer’s heat, the Main Library was always full of life. A place filled with so much more than just books; it was the center of something important.

Since mid-March, of course,  Salt Lake area libraries, including City Libraries, County Libraries and the Murray Library, have transitioned their services to the virtual realm while doors remain closed during these unprecedented times. Their challenge now: Finding new ways to help serve a community that needs them now more than ever.

The Salt Lake County Public Library System

The Salt Lake County Public Library is a system of 18 free libraries serving the population throughout Salt Lake County, Utah. A list of their library locations can be found on their website here. https://www.slcolibrary.org/locations/locations

Sara Neal, marketing and communications manager at the County Library, says the initial goal for most libraries was to figure out the best way to replicate some of the more unique experiences libraries offer for home use. In addition to an expanded collection of digital eBooks and audiobooks, the County Library currently offers virtual club meetings, a live story time for children, online language learning modules and other skill building courses, and daily phone appointments with librarians. Wi-Fi accessibility is free to anyone parked or sitting outside the buildings. They offer a virtual kids summer reading program and other creative summer reading programming for pre-readers and adults alike.

Neal says that so far, this experiment in staying helpful and relevant has gone exceptionally well. Usership for these online services and eBooks has increased dramatically since early March.

County libraries have helped serve a gap in our community resources by loaning over a dozen 3D printers to the University of Utah’s Marriott and Eccles Health Sciences Libraries to help print Personal Protective Equipment, such as face shields, for University of Utah hospital employees.

On May 26, the County Library began a pick-up service where patrons can reserve books for curbside collection.

County Library leadership is looking at limited capacity opening sometime in July. According to Neal, this would most likely involve people making an appointment to come in to browse books or to use library computers.

“Libraries are a safe space for so many people because they empower them to learn more and improve their lives in so many ways. Still, a lot of that rides on us being able to open up our doors,” Neal said.

The Murray City Public Library

The Murray Library was founded in 1912, eight years after Murray incorporated, thanks to a grant for construction from Andrew Carnegie. Today, Murray is one of the few municipalities in Utah that still sustains its own public library.

The Murray City Library has embraced technology and change in recent years. The library has a successful YouTube channel full of librarian readings for all ages and a curbside pick-up program that was up and running for over a year before Covid-19 hit.

“Originally, we had put this in place for people who had a hard time getting out of their cars to come into the library—older people, people with physical disabilities, busy moms. With this already in place before Covid ever hit, it was easier for us logistically to still provide that necessary service,” Director Kim Fong says.

The next challenge is figuring out a way to safely open the library for computer use, which Fong says is the number one request she hears from community members.

“We’re anticipating that there will be a lot of people looking for work and most job applications are primarily online now.” Some people may not have the resources to fill out a job application right now because they don’t have access to either a home, school or library computer.

“Many people think of libraries as a place where you get books or movies, but access to information is something that has changed in our society and for the most part, libraries have been able to change with it.”

Planning for reopening is already underway, Fong says, though the real difficulty is obtaining the massive amount of necessary cleaning supplies to make the plan a safe reality. Still, computer-use appointments may begin by early July, health guidance permitting.

The Salt Lake City Public Library System

The Salt Lake City Public Library system is a network of nine public libraries in neighborhoods throughout Salt Lake City. A list of city library locations can be found here. https://about.slcpl.org/locations

“No one is ever fully prepared for a pandemic,” says Quinn Smith, the City Library’s assistant director of marketing and communications. “However, I think we were sitting fairly pretty at the beginning of this.

Art by Stella Gilmore

“Our website was incredibly robust already. The big adaptation was adding Covid-specific resources that we knew would help our community—especially to combat any sort of misinformation that was circulating in the beginning and to connect people to resources that we already had or knew about,” Smith says.

Ultimately, the library would spend countless hours planning how to address the needs of the community from as many angles as possible. Executive director Peter Bromberg agrees that the transition to doing so virtually was smooth,  thanks to the incredible hard work and adaptability of the library staff.

Soon, slcpl.org had a full Covid page topped with COVID-19 updates, links to finding additional health resources, homework help options for children and emotional support resources for adults and teens.

Bromberg says they added close to 7,800 new titles to their already sizeable digital collections as he watched eBook and audiobook usage rapidly increase by a whopping 50% through May.

Aside from reading, online learning more generally has increased exponentially. Usage of Mango Languages, the online language learning resource the library offers, has increased by 39%; the library’s online homework help tutoring service, where any student of any age, grade or subject can connect with a certified teacher for help, has increased its usership by 126%.

It is all very exciting that these resources are still available for use via the digital world. Still, physical libraries play a crucial role in our community.

“We knew there were a number of our patrons affected by the digital divide—one of them being school children, as schools were closed: and also the elderly, as so many senior centers closed to visitors,” Smith explains.

With the support from Friends of the City Library, a separate 501c3 which donated hundreds of used books previously intended for the annual April book sale, Quinn Smith has been working with various nonprofits to distribute books to senior living residences, donate them to the foster care system and drop them off at shelters across the city.

Currently, Meals on Wheels is distributing additional library-donated books during their lunch services. Neighbors Helping Neighbors has gotten involved with helping to drop off books to the elderly or immunocompromised and even individual library staff members have picked up books to distribute. Since early May, the library has donated over 6,000 books to the community.

The City Library’s community garden (at the downtown branch) closed to community gardeners in March but was still getting care from the library’s two employed gardeners. At the end of May, the gardeners pulled their first harvest, donating it to the Women’s Resource Center along with 400 books.

Still, Peter Bromberg says, “The physical library itself is a wholly unique space in the civic community. It is really the only place that is open to everyone, welcoming and free with extended hours and multiple locations. It’s that place where everyone can and does come regardless of socioeconomic status. It’s where we as residents and community members rub up against each other, connect and meet people that we wouldn’t otherwise meet perhaps in our own neighborhoods. There’s just no substitute for the space itself.”

The library is crafting a reopening plan, though Bromberg says it is still too early to say when it might be implemented. Computer use access, he says, certainly prioritizes the need to reopen. A significant number of families and students, particularly on the West side, rely on libraries for access to computers or broadband internet

In the meantime, the library is working on a federal grant to help get community members connected with not only computers and Wi-Fi, but one-on-one digital skills training to further increase digital equity throughout the Salt Lake area.

Regarding racial inequality and systemic injustices, issues that have been brought to the forefront of our minds due to recent events. I asked Quinn Smith and Peter Bromberg how they saw the library’s role in helping to heal and grow the community from here.

“[Libraries] are the number one most trusted public institution,” says Smith. “We are looked to as a leader, a place and platform that you can come to for accurate, appropriate information. We know that this is an important time to take a stance and while it is a potentially very polarizing situation, we know that we need to stand on the right side of history.”

Within days of Salt Lake City’s initial protests calling for justice for George Floyd and police brutality, the library added a number of titles to their collection focused on racial inequality, black resistance and white supremacy.

Once again, Smith says, the library must resume its role of trusted advisor. She says the library will make a heavy shift in money to provide these reading materials as a resource, but also as an action point in diversifying their catalog and recommendations.

“Social justice is baked into our professional ethics,” Bromberg adds. “We welcome everyone, and we exist in some ways to level the playing field, so equity is just a huge part of the public library ethos.”

Two years ago, The City Library itself began an internal strategic planning process. It’s not enough, Bromberg says, to represent ideas such as equity, inclusion and belonging; institutions must refocus their time and resources into effecting change. It is their responsibility, he says, to now recognize the urgency of the situation.

Bromberg recalls the 2017 police shooting of Abdul Mohammed in Salt Lake City. “We used the Marmalade library to bring in a few hundred people to gather in solidarity. We’ve had those community conversations about immigration, about profiling, about global warming.

“The library is the place where we bring people together and we have these conversations. We just need to do it now with much more resolve and much more focus.”


Emily Spacek is CATALYST’s staff writer.

This article was originally published on July 1, 2020.