LJ Star Libraries 2021: Star Libraries and the Pandemic

We interviewed five directors of new or returning 2021 Star Libraries to learn how their libraries were positioned to cope with the pandemic, how they changed their operations to cope with the pandemic, and how their libraries rose to the challenges of the pandemic.

We interviewed five directors of new or returning 2021 Star Libraries to learn how their libraries were positioned to cope with the pandemic, how they changed their operations to cope with the pandemic, and how their libraries rose to the challenges of the pandemic.



Anne-Marie Despain, director of library services for San Mateo County Libraries, CA (five stars, $30M+), attributed her library system’s readiness for the pandemic to an organizational culture “that champions creativity, learning, risk taking, and growth-mindset thinking.” Specifically, she credits “already built out and robust” digital resources that were “easy to enhance… quickly,” pioneering in “circulating Wi-Fi hotspots and laptops to the public,” pre-pandemic plans to extend curbside service, and “an open communication and continuous feedback model” of staff performance management. 

Despain reports that San Mateo County Libraries staff collaborated to expand curbside service to all locations; to create centralized customer care (phone, text, email—all in multiple languages); to provide technology support for distance learning (hotspots, laptops, and Zoom meeting rooms); to reimagine the summer learning STEAM curriculum “so families could do them together from home”; and to assist their county’s emergency efforts (food availability, contact tracing, vaccine information, resource assistance).

Despain described how “COVID-19 presented our community with an early shared challenge: a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers....  We put 17 3D printers into action. In a matter of weeks, we worked with medical workers to prototype, design, and organize a team of staff members to print, cut and assemble ear savers and face shields for our county hospital. 



Debbie Ehrman, acting executive director of Salt Lake City Public Library, UT (five stars, $10–29.9M), believes that her library’s existing digital equity efforts “set us up nicely to keep our community connected to vital resources during the pandemic.” The library’s hiring of a digital inclusion coordinator in 2016 enabled it to focus on bridging the digital divide (borrowable Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops), leading to a Digital Navigator initiative, an IMLS grant–funded project that made possible technology outreach efforts that enabled the library to provide low-cost internet access and devices “when people needed us the most.”

Ehrman described how Salt Lake City Public Library’s annual in-person celebrations of cultural events such as Día de los Muertos, Diwali, and Pride went virtual. Through the library’s existing Holds to Go curbside service, patrons could receive newly created kits so they could celebrate at home. This idea was so successful it was expanded beyond celebrations to provide “unique at-home experiences for all ages” (a mystery box for teens, maker projects, custom book bags for parents, expanded literacy kits, and memory kits for caregivers).

Ehrman shared how the library’s robust gardening programs were adapted during the pandemic. “Within days of the citywide closure, our gardeners created an online order system for the Seed Library, and later mailed out over 800 envelopes of seeds.... Our intrepid gardeners continued to tend our 16 community garden beds themselves, growing hundreds of pounds of fresh produce to donate weekly to an emergency women’s shelter.”



Lisa Tattersall, manager of Washington County Cooperative Library Services in Hillsboro, OR (four stars, $5–9.9M), attributed her library system’s ability to respond quickly to the pandemic to its “forward-thinking early adoption of technologies and the skills of our staff to implement them.” Within days of the countywide shutdown, library staff were able to shift to a 100 percent remote work environment. Critical services to 16 locations continued largely uninterrupted, apart from the transfer of physical books between branches. Staff immediately turned their attention to an already robust digital collection.

Pandemic-motivated changes that Tattersall believes enabled Washington County Cooperative Library Services to adapt quickly included curating online distance learning resources for preK–12 students and their families, and online job development and search resources for victims of dramatic layoffs. The library also prioritized engagement with patrons via digital channels and newsletters, and eliminated overdue fines.

Tattersall reports that, “in March 2020, when it was clear in-person events would not be possible, we quickly redesigned our Summer Reading program. Instead of kids coming to the library, we took the library to underserved kids whose families went to free lunch sites. We put over 10,000 free books into kids’ hands. It was so successful and well-received that we reprised it again this summer. We also partnered with homeless shelters and migrant camps to distribute free books for adults and kids in these vulnerable situations.”



Spencer Watts, library director for East Baton Rouge Parish Library, LA (three stars, $30M+), identified several pre-existing efforts that prepared his library to face pandemic challenges: a weekly Facebook-based Monday Night Bedtime Stories series, the library’s YouTube channel, bookmobile outreach service, a school–public library partnership, food bank and gardening programs, drive-through windows, a no-fines policy for children and seniors, regular e-messaging to patrons, and “a robust collection of more than 200,000 ­ebooks, audiobooks, and streaming media platforms.”

Watts credits East Baton Rouge Parish’s effective adaptation to the pandemic to expanded school–public library collaboration (something he characterized as “COVID lemonade”—as the library had been trying to arrange that for years) as well as a wide variety of virtual programs, including story times, book talks, author/expert presentations, theatrical and musical events, job-seeking workshops, and more.

The library also partnered with school food outreach programs, doubled and tripled the size of its deposit collections, and made library meeting rooms available as COVID screening and vaccine sites and space for rental assistance programs. Google ads seen by book shoppers increased annual traffic to the library’s website and catalogue by 83 percent. The library worked with local magazines and media outlets to create local content and “deliver it virtually in front of their paywalls.” Examples included “the prestigious Business Forum series, 225 magazine’s Positive Minute, inRegister’s book club, and BR Parents magazine’s Kids Scoop News.”

Watts reports that East Baton Rouge Parish “converted our 3rd Annual Mid City Micro-Con in August 2020—which connects a community of comics fans, graphic artists, and creators who are often underrepresented and unseen—to an entire day of virtual programming. This was overwhelmingly appreciated by creators and fans alike—they really celebrated the opportunity to connect in spite of COVID restrictions and promoted it and the library heavily via social media before and after the fact. The archives are still being viewed and we’ve added to them with this year’s ‘in-person’ session recordings.” 



Leonard LoPinto, director of Paramus Public Library, NJ (three stars, $1–4.9M), credits his library’s preparedness to deal with a pandemic to existing partnerships and collaborations with local schools, local government, and other libraries and community organizations. 

“In the early days of the pandemic, we learned to use Zoom for staff meetings and ESL classes, we set up a Google number so staff could call our patrons just to offer a friendly voice of support, we manned virtual reference desks from our backyards and answered questions about life, the pandemic, and bread making as best we could. We made YouTube videos, we told stories, and we watched our social media engagement climb through the roof,” said LoPinto. “We emailed every person that had attended a program within the last year just to let them know that the library was still alive and that we were there to help them in any way we could. Did everything we tried work? No, but we learned from our mistakes and then tried something different.”

The staff learned from its successes, too. “The ESL classes stand out as a unique experience that has made us reevaluate the way we do business. Before the pandemic, we never considered offering virtual classes. Holding the classes virtually has allowed us to reach more people and rethink the model. When we held classes in our meeting room, small group work would often be difficult because everyone was attempting to talk louder than the group next to them. But with Zoom, we can break out students into small groups and they can really focus on what their partner is saying. It’s also much easier for the teacher to bounce between groups and address individual needs.... Eventually we’ll have ESL classes back in the library, but we’ll probably always keep part of our program online.” 

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