Pandemic Refocuses Library Priorities

By Midge Pierce

Since closing on March 14 due to COVID-19, Multnomah County Library (MCL) has ventured deeper into the world of electronic media delivery, nearly tripling its material costs while holding staff levels steady.

Digital checkouts from its most popular services are up roughly one third since closure. Checkout for materials for children (up to age 12) are up 116 percent through the system’s Overdrive digital management service and up 161 percent from Kanopy Kids, which skews toward a slightly younger age group.

When facility shutdown orders came from the Governor, the first challenge the library faced was to pivot as much content online as possible. They implemented virtual library cards that went live on March 21, enabling residents to access everything from YouTube story times to citywide reading programs.

By mid-May more than 6,000 new library cards had been issued.

The scope of their transition is demonstrated in the increased numbers of checkouts of favorite E-books and audio books such as family favorite Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone which soared from roughly 200 to more than 2,000 check-outs after the shutdown. Michelle Obama’s non-fiction Becoming has also been a popular item.

Circulation numbers can be driven by the rights the library has obtained – the more generous the license, the more people can check out the same book at a time. For the Harry Potter books, author JK Rowling made downloads and audiobooks free in April.

Electronic Resources Librarian Kady Ferris explains, “A lot of the ‘after’ top titles are ones we have made available in the cost per checkout licensing model, so they have an unlimited number of people who can check them out at once, which obviously will make a difference in their circulation numbers.”

Meeting the demands of residents has come at a cost. The system spent $940,000 on digital resources over the months since closure. Pre-pandemic, a typical month’s purchase of hardcopy books and other items was about $370,000.

Despite increased costs and demands, MCL has been able to avoid the furloughs that hit other Portland government agencies. That’s because the library has a relatively stable funding source from county property taxes.

By contrast, budget shortfalls and social distancing requirements caused city agencies like Portland Parks & Recreation to close community centers, pools and programs through summer. Portland’s public schools have cut costs by reducing to a four-day work week.

Instead of layoffs, the library has been able to redeploy staff to help with everything from the 2020 Census to outreach in underserved communities. Some staffers are supporting Multnomah County emergency services, including staffing the emergency shelter at the Oregon Convention Center.

Others help manage countywide volunteer operations and translate content for countywide communications. This includes assisting with posting and monitoring social media content in languages other than English.

The virus, says library spokesman Shawn Cunningham, has amplified people’s basic needs and what they need to know. He says a major goal of librarians is to turn the digital divide into digital inclusion.

Those most adversely affected by the virus tend to lack electronic devices and online access. MCL is currently working with local governments and nonprofits to develop hotspots for public access to the internet.

Demands on the system go beyond E-books and redeployments. Comparing March 1, 2020-May 15, 2020 to the same period last year, searches on the genealogy source, Ancestry Library Edition, experienced a 50 percent increase from nearly 20,000 to 30,000.

In the same time frame, the library’s version of Linkedin Learning, Lynda for Libraries, experienced a 78 percent increase in hours viewed and 206 percent increase in certificates completed. Views of The Oregonian were up 41 percent.

Planning for safe reopening of libraries is the next challenge, especially for small branches like Belmont where physically distancing is harder to achieve. Because of its limited size, most checkouts happen through use  of Belmont’s “holds” process rather than off their limited, standard bookshelves.

Going forward, drive-through check-outs may be an option. Separating chairs around the well-used computer tables will be especially tricky, according to Cunningham. Larger branches, like Midland Library on SE 122nd and Stark St., may be in a better position to reopen.

Meanwhile, if your own frustration is growing over that stack of unreturned books on your dining table, librarians plead for patience because if everyone tried to return materials at once, staff would be overwhelmed. Cunningham assures that no fines will be issued as a result of COVID-19.

As for future trends, some Portlanders may come to prefer the virtual world. Cunningham suspects most will continue to crave the heft, feel and smell of opening a physical hardcopy book.

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Pandemic Refocuses Library Priorities

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