Public Libraries: 10 Strategic Lessons Learned During the Pandemic
by David Lee King
2020 will no doubt go down in history as a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. What other year has had—let’s see—a global pandemic, an election with less-than-stellar choices, an impeachment hearing, riots, British royalty giving up on being royals, fires, hurricanes, derechos, and murder hornets? I’ll bet I’m even missing a few major things.
|The challenge ahead is to continue to engage our customers by providing a stellar physical experience as well as rich digital opportunities.
For libraries, it was a year of upheavals. Many were forced to quickly rework their services and redefine their offerings in order to meet new needs arising out of the pandemic response, as well as keep the library running from a distance. However, on the upside, I think some of the changes libraries have been forced to make during the pandemic will turn out to be good for them.
Here are 10 positive lessons we’ve learned (so far) at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library in Kansas, which will no doubt influence our strategic planning for years to come.
1. The library doesn’t have to close (really). The first lesson we learned is that the library doesn’t really ever close. Yes, our building closed. In fact, our library closed to the public on March 16 and sent staffers home. The building stayed closed until late June, when we started our phased reopening plan.
The building was definitely closed. But was the library completely shuttered? No, it wasn’t. Customers could still interact with the library in many ways. They could do the following:
√ Check out an ebook or digital magazine, listen to an audiobook, or watch a video (through OverDrive, hoopla, and Flipster).
√ Take a class (first through Lynda, Treehouse, and Creativebug, and eventually with library staff via Zoom).
√ Ask a question. My library uses Springshare’s LibAnswers for our Ask-a-Librarian service. LibAnswers is web-based, so staff members could log in and answer questions from home. We created a daily schedule for the service and answered questions as we received them. We even funneled our main phone number’s voicemail messages to LibAnswers.
√ Do research using our 85 databases. Most of these databases are available outside of the building. Some of the databases that are usually only available inside of the building, such as Ancestry.com, loosened restrictions so they could also be accessed out of the building—which was very helpful to our genealogy customers.
√ Attend a storytime. Right before we closed, we helped staffers create about 40 storytime videos. We were able to share those videos on social media every week while we were closed.
√ Interact with staff and other patrons using social media. Library staffers created some fun conversation starters about books and other content and posted them to Facebook and Twitter. That has turned into weekly evening book talks using Facebook.
√ Get a library card. We have had a digital library card for a few years, so we promoted it pretty heavily while we were closed. We made sure people could easily sign up for a library card so they could start checking out econtent.
√ Stay informed. We used our website and social media to keep our community up-to-date on all of the changes the library was experiencing and on changes that might affect them (i.e., when items needed to be returned, and what we were doing about late fees).
Only the physical library building closed. The digital library remained open for business and stayed busy.
2. Don’t assume customers know about your digital content. For years, libraries have promoted econtent offerings, such as ebooks, digital audiobooks, and streaming video. My library is no exception. Even though these collections were regularly promoted, once we closed, we learned that people were not as familiar with our digital content as we would have liked. We definitely heard our customers say that they just discovered our OverDrive collection of ebooks and loved the service.
We realized we needed to focus on promoting our digital content while we were closed. To help spread the word, we pushed our digital offerings across all of our social media platforms. Some of the videos we made before we closed focused on our econtent services. We made social media posts pointing to our ebook apps in Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We were also able to share what was available to customers through traditional media. Our local newspaper wrote a few articles about what was available at the library, which helped reach more people.
All of this promotion helped increase use of our digital resources. For example, in April, use of OverDrive was up 14%, and hoopla was up 42% compared to previous months. The number of new users of both OverDrive and hoopla skyrocketed. New OverDrive users increased by 210%, and new hoopla users went up by 254%.
3. Libraries are media companies. About 10 years ago, this quote was floating around social media: “Every company is a media company.” When libraries had to suddenly close their buildings earlier this year, I think the realization hit home that this aphorism is actually true. Suddenly, many of us were posting videos, creating social media posts, writing blog posts, and leading Zoom sessions. We were developing digital media. Because of the pandemic, libraries have increased their focus on creating digital media and promoting digital content. That’s good news, because this is where the focus should be in today’s library.
4. We can actually work remotely. When my library closed, we quickly figured out that we could do our jobs from home, for the most part. Obviously, we weren’t able to mow the library’s lawn or process physical books. But otherwise, we were able to do pretty much everything we needed to do from home. That was a necessary realization that will only help libraries become more flexible going forward.
At my library, we are mostly back in the building now. But we still do have staffers who need to work remotely, at least part time. For example, some staff members have children who are schooling from home, so parents need to be at home as well. Our newfound appreciation that working from home is possible makes us less apprehensive about such arrangements.
5. Staffers need tools to work from home. This point is closely connected to my fourth point. Staffers need more than permission to work from home; they also need equipment and space. In my library’s case, the great majority of our staff members have some type of Wi-Fi/internet access at home. Most of them also have some type of computer in their home.
For some staffers, their computer setup worked great before the pandemic. But once they were sent home—along with their kids and significant others—it suddenly didn’t work so well. In my case, my dining room became my office, my wife staked out the kitchen table as her workspace, and my daughter attended college classes (even her voice lessons) from her bedroom. That setup worked fine for my family; we had plenty of space and equipment to manage everyone’s needs.
Other staff members had situations that did not work as well. For example, some had a single computer that two or more people now had to share for work or to attend school from home. My library responded to equipment problems by first repurposing 20 laptops that were part of our learning center’s computer classes. We reimaged the laptops so staffers who needed a computer could borrow one, along with a Wi-Fi hotspot if needed.
The next step of that process was to move our managers (23 people) from desktop-based systems to laptop-based systems for their office computer setup. Now managers can easily take their computer-based work home as needed. This has freed up those original 20 computers for other staffers to borrow. These steps, combined with using Microsoft 365 for file management and collaboration, have helped staff members continue working wherever they are.
6. Using personal devices is OK. From the IT management side of things, allowing staffers to work from home, on their own computers and over their home networks, has not been an issue. Personal, handheld devices also played an important role.
Staffers who attended virtual meetings using their smartphones were still able to fully interact. And when our marketing department needed more videos for social media, staff members made them using their smartphones in their own backyards. They turned out great! They feel authentic and provide good content. Yes, some of the videos needed a little editing or were shot vertically instead of horizontally. But you know what? That was OK. Our customers still connected with the content and with the library, as a result of staff members using the technology they had.
7. It never hurts to advertise. Oddly enough, my library has had to do a lot of promotion about the library being open again. This is a first, and it’s been a bit tricky. While we have been open since late June, we still run into people who ask if we are open yet. To deal with this communication issue, the library created a We’re Open campaign on our website as well as with conventional signage. Another personal first has been seeing my face on a billboard.
The campaign also uses YouTube video ads, which is a new format for us. So far, we have created five video ads for YouTube. These are ads that play before the video you really want to watch, in which you have to view the first 5 seconds and then can click the Skip Ad button. Our video ads have been very successful; to date, they have been viewed more than 35,000 times. You can read more about the ads at my blog (davidleeking.com/youtube-video-ads-new-thing-for-us).
8. New services and offerings aren’t temporary. Like many libraries, we have added some new services and resources because of the pandemic. So far, we’ve launched the following:
√ Curbside pickup—Put a book on hold, go to the designated spot, and give us a call. We’ll bring your book out to you.
√ Browsing just for you—This is sort of like a clothing subscription service. Fill out a form, letting us know your reading preferences, and we will pick out books for you, bundle them, and put them on hold for you to pick up curbside.
√ Book bundles—This is also a preselected bunch of books, which can be found in our Circulation Plaza in the building. We have different genres, topics, and kids’ books bundled and ready to go.
√ Home delivery—We had to temporarily put our bookmobile service on hold. In order to serve those customers affected by not having regular bookmobile stops, we created a new home delivery service. As of this writing, it’s still in the pilot phase, so we’ll see how it develops. But, as you’d expect, our customers love it.
Each of these new services is something we will want to keep offering going forward. With some, there are still a lot of decisions to be made. For example, if we continue growing our home delivery service, we will either need to partner with a courier service or buy more delivery vehicles.
For our curbside pickup service, we will eventually need space. We are currently using the Sunroom, a lovely little covered building in our new outdoor amphitheater area. It was created to be a cafe extension and a casual meeting place. Right now, the Sunroom works great for curbside pickup by providing space for shelving and easy access to the parking lot. But once we are able to use the amphitheater and the Sunroom normally, we’ll need to find another curbside space that can hold the approximately 3,000 items that people place on hold for curbside pickup. Currently, we don’t have a viable alternate space for that service.
9. Focus on digital first. As my library plans for the future, we are talking about moving to a digital-first model of library operations. Digital-first means that you prioritize digital communications and services over the physical, in-person versions. For example, a modern newspaper might first post a news item to social media. Then it gathers more information and creates an article for the website. After that, it finds the most interesting news stories of the day or week and uses those articles in the print edition of the newspaper. A retail outlet might simply direct customers to its online store. It’ll display signs throughout the store pointing to its online presence and share that more items—different colors and more sizes—can be found online.
A library can deploy similar approaches. In fact, many libraries have been doing a version of digital-first since they closed their physical doors earlier this year. For at least a couple of months, customers could only check out digital content. My library’s classes and events all went virtual. Even a large library event such as Summer Reading was completely virtual this year.
Why should we discontinue digital initiatives? A class that can physically seat 30 people is awesome. But a virtual class that can accommodate hundreds of people is amazing. Most libraries simply don’t have that much space for people, even in a non-pandemic year. But you have almost unlimited space in a virtual environment. As your library eventually moves back to being fully open, keep doing digital events, and turn physical events into special value-added events held at the library.
This concept also means you will need to train your staffers to focus on digital-first content creation. They will need training on things such as how to write for the web, how to develop content for social media, how to create image-based and video-based content, and how to successfully run a Zoom meeting.
10. Digital is a library branch too. Your library’s digital presence is, indeed, a digital branch of your library. This point was driven home to me during our building closure because our digital branch was all we had to offer customers. And the digital branch rose to the occasion. Our customers are still able to read, watch, and listen to our library’s content. Customers are able to attend classes and storytimes. They can get questions answered and can interact with other library customers.
As we continue to open up, we must also continue to focus on and grow our digital branches. This should be relatively easy; many of us closed and didn’t have another option, so our digital branches are already fully developed. The challenge ahead is to continue to engage our customers by providing a stellar physical experience as well as rich digital opportunities.