Inside the Miller Branch library a few weeks ago, trying to map out how the facilities could reopen with possible social distancing guidelines and increased safety measures amid the coronavirus pandemic, Howard County Library System President and CEO Tonya Aikens saw hundreds of books stuffed through the small door of the book drop piling up on the floor.
“It totally is not something you think you’d ever see,” Aikens said. “That picture is what it looks like at all of our locations right now.”
With the libraries closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, something as simple as returning books to the library suddenly had become difficult. A photo of the books piling up was shared on the library system’s Facebook page in May with a plea to not return books during the pandemic. The post reminded patrons fines are being waived right now.
“We’re not looking to reinstate fines even when we open our facilities because we’ll still be in this economic recession caused by the pandemic,” Aikens said. “We don’t want to place any barriers on our customers that would limit their ability to access our resources and recover themselves.”
The problem with the book drops is one of several challenges the system has faced in the past two months since its libraries temporarily closed.
At a Howard County Council meeting on May 11, Aikens said County Executive Calvin Ball’s 2% increase for the library system’s fiscal 2021 budget won’t cover the projected loss in revenue due to the coronavirus. The library system asked for a 5% budget increase, and the 2% increase of about $429,000, which the council approved May 27, doesn’t cover the $450,000 in projected lost revenue related to the waiving of book return fines and not being able to provide passport services, Aikens said.
Aikens also told the council the library system would begin implementing one-week furloughs of all 243 library system staff members once the council passed the fiscal 2021 budget.
Aikens said the furloughs are expected to save $253,000.
“While no one ever wants to furlough anyone, we understand the challenges that our community is faced with, and we want to be a part of rebuilding,” Aikens said. “We’re grateful to still have a team to serve our community.”
Aikens said she has been proud of the library system’s ability to offer services online during the pandemic, including offerings such as e-books, e-audiobooks, language learning services, education classes and other learning services for children.
“This is certainly a challenging time for everyone, but our staff has really done a remarkable job adapting to this new environment,” said Christie Lassen, the library system’s director of communications and partnerships. “They’ve pivoted very well to a virtual classroom or to different online services.”
During the pandemic, Aikens said online visits for classes are up 167%, while use of resources for elementary school students have increased 871% and 202% for middle and high school students, respectively.
“That shows you how [hungry] the community was for that content and to have ways to engage immediately with learning and with one another through the virtual classes,” said Aikens, who started with the library system a little more than two years ago. “We’re very proud of the quick and successful pivot but also the community response to it.”
As the library system prepares for how it can open its facilities, Lassen said it can be difficult to see what “normal looks like” during the pandemic.
“Our biggest concern is how we can provide contactless services and do that in the safest way possible for our customers and our staff,” Lassen said.
Aikens said the county is still waiting for more information and science regarding the safety of opening the libraries. She’s met virtually with library system leaders across the state and is preparing for a return that includes acquiring personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies, socially distancing in the facilities and finding spaces to quarantine materials if needed.
“Our number of visits and our circulation is extraordinarily high compared to library systems across the country, so it’s very important for us that our libraries are not a location that causes numbers in the county to rise,” Aikens said.