Canadian Libraries Respond to COVID-19

With public libraries across Canada suddenly shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, library leaders and workers across the country are quickly adapting to still serve people, primarily online.

Hemi the Golden Retriever helps out with online storytime presented by Edmonton Public Library, CanadaWith public libraries across Canada suddenly shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, library leaders and workers across the country are quickly adapting to still serve people, primarily online.

Canadian libraries began announcing building closures in mid-March. In Toronto, Ontario, Canada’s largest city, recommendations from the city’s medical officer of health led the City of Toronto to announce March 13 the closure of numerous facilities, including all 100 library branches. A wave of shutdowns across the country followed, from the closure of Newfoundland and Labrador Public Libraries' 94 locations March 16, to Yukon’s chief medical officer of health declaring a public health emergency March 18, triggering the closure of all libraries in the northern territory. In Calgary, Alberta, home to the much-lauded new Central Library, the city’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, described the March 16 closure of the city’s 21 libraries as heartbreaking. “These are tough decisions,” he tweeted. “But ultimately, these good habits keep us collectively safe.”

In a few cases, including at Vancouver Island Regional Library in British Columbia and Whitchurch-Stouffville Public Library in Ontario, layoff notices followed building closures. Vancouver Island Regional Library closed its 39 branches at the end of the day March 16, then announced a few days later the majority of staff had been laid off. “This is a stressful time for everyone involved and we are committed to working closely with our employees to ensure they are protected and secure,” said the Vancouver Island Regional Library in a statement March 18.

Following the sudden building closures, libraries have quickly communicated to patrons about what to do with checked out materials, overdue items, and holds ready for pickup. At the same time, libraries have transitioned their staff to work remotely, increased communication to the public about available digital resources and how to access them from home, and directed people to credible information about COVID-19. Somewhere in there, they’ve still found time for some fun, from Regina Public Library’s Twitter thread of kids’ books and the hand soaps they most resemble, to Kitchener Public Library’s Twitter thread of staff pets enjoying books.)

At Richmond Hill Public Library in Ontario, where all four locations have been closed since March 14, temporary digital cards have been introduced to allow residents access to the library’s online offerings. “What we are essentially trying to do is to provide a digital space that provides the comfort, recreation, and knowledge that we provided as a library,” says Yunmi Hwang, the library’s interim CEO.

Previously, residents had to come into a library to get a card. Now they can call to receive a Richmond Hill Public Library card number and PIN, which can be transferred into a permanent card once the library opens again. Hwang says staff, working from home, are purchasing more digital titles, while checkout limits have increased for patrons on both OverDrive and Hoopla. “A lot of our vendors have stepped up as well, offering free usage of the products and increasing what they can offer to the library,” she says.

Richmond Hill Public Library staff are also working on curated lists to guide people through all the online content and resources available. “We’re trying to take this as an opportunity to promote what the library can offer remotely and let people know that we are here for them,” Hwang says.

Toronto Public Library’s digital collection has experienced “incredible usage” since branches closed, says Michele Melady, manager, collection development and membership services. “It’s gratifying to know that during the closure, and while people are at home and feeling cut off from their normal way of life, that they still have access to reading materials and to entertainment and they are finding it through their public library,” she says.

In response, Toronto Public Library has already introduced some additional digital features. Video streaming service Kanopy has curated a new collection of movies that won’t incur play credits and has made Kanopy Kids available to libraries for free, limits on Hoopla have increased, and Ancestry, a genealogical database previously only available in libraries, is offering remote access. Melady says staff are also adding new titles regularly to ensure the digital collection stays fresh for all.

While Toronto has some past experience with a public health emergency, having faced the SARS outbreak in 2003, Melady says the current situation with COVID-19 is unprecedented. “I don’t think we’ve ever in our lifetime seen anything like this,” she says.

In other cities, services previously accessed in-person have been adjusted to happen by phone, such as walk-in counseling services at Regina Public Libraries in Saskatchewan.

Meanwhile in Edmonton, Alberta, as regular services screeched to a halt at 21 branches March 14, staff tried “to see what we could do to support our community and bring what we could online,” says Sharon Day, director of branch services and collections at Edmonton Public Library. That meant creating videos of story times and sing along songs, and posting the content on YouTube.

Some of the most popular videos feature librarians reading titles like Pete the Cat: I Love My White Shoes and Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise to a Golden Retriever named Hemi, a retired sniffer dog owned by a library employee. “He's a lovely, beautiful dog, super well trained but also full personality,” Day says.

For the staff who are reading stories to Hemi, Day says the dog acts as a stand-in for a child, making the experience more realistic and fun. “It's not quite so structured, because he'll do things you're not expecting,” she says.

Edmonton Public Library also employs three outreach staff, who are registered social workers. Day says those workers continue to try to provide support to vulnerable people, including by phone. Options for reaching people who may not have internet or phone access are still being explored.

Additionally, Edmonton Public Library has offered assistance as Edmonton’s EXPO Centre transforms to serve people experiencing homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic. The facility now provides drop-in day services to people without housing, and a separate portion of the building is used as a 24/7 isolation shelter. Day says the library has donated furniture from a recently closed branch, and some technology, including iPads and Chromebooks.

From vulnerable people who turned to libraries as a safe space to spend time, to parents and small children who can no longer attend story times, Day hopes all Edmonton residents know the library is still there for them.

“An important place for us right now is making sure our communities are aware we are still here,” she says. “We are still who we always have been, providing the services that we always have, it's just going to look a little bit different for the time being.”

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