Before the pandemic, patrons arriving at the Austin Central Library each morning were likely to find Roosevelt Weeks waiting inside the main doors at 10am sharp, ready with a hello and a handshake as the building opened.
“I get my energy from people,” says Weeks, Director of the Austin Public Library (APL) system. “I learn a lot just talking to people, giving high-fives to kids when they walk through the door or watching their amazement when they walk into the building. Those are the types of things that give me absolute joy.”
Such joys — and many library services — have been on hold since APL closed its 22 branches in March, a week before the city’s shelter-in-place orders. The library is currently offering curbside pick-up at 10 branches, but with Travis County reporting record new coronavirus cases, there are no plans yet to reopen library buildings, even with limited capacity.
“We don’t take it lightly,” Weeks says. “It’s doubly difficult when we know the library can add to that spread. And we are not going to sacrifice health or safety for our staff or the public.”
Roosevelt Weeks is director of the Austin Public Library system, which has had to make significant adjustments in response to the pandemic. “We’ve come to the point where the public depends on us, and we’re thrilled with that. We provide an essential service when it comes to education, learning, all the things that are important in a healthy society,” Weeks says. [Photo by Kelly West]
Austin's Central Library, which opened in 2017, is empty except for maintenance, security, and a few other essential staff. APL has started curbside services, but neighborhood branches remain closed to the public. [Photo by Kelly West]
Libraries are the most public spaces we have — they provide educational programs, after-school care, meeting rooms, computers, and internet. They’re one of few places where all people are welcome, resources are plentiful, you can stay for hours, and everything is free.
Which is why library closures can leave a significant void in a community’s support network. But the Austin Public Library, like the rest of the country, is finding new ways to innovate and serve its customers while expanding what it means to be a library.
In the early days of APL’s closure, technology became critical — librarians were working from home, and many in the community needed access to the internet.
“This virus has really shown us that the digital divide is bigger than we thought,” Weeks says. “People may have some technology, but the technology is not nearly where it needs to be for children to do their homework, or for folks to do research, or even to look for jobs or benefits.”
When the library halted circulation, this paused the flow of laptops and wifi hotspots the library loans to cardholders. To try and bridge the divide, the library boosted its wifi signal at each branch, leaving it on 24/7 so neighbors could park and log on with their devices.
At the same time, demand for ebooks has increased by nearly 30 percent from March to May, while applications for eCards increased by 56 percent in the same period. Printed books are circulating now through curbside service, but materials are quarantined for 72 hours before they’re checked out again.
While many librarians have worked from home during the past three months, APL’s custodial, security, and maintenance staff continue servicing buildings, performing repairs, and checking on homeless communities that cluster around certain branches, like Terrazas at the edge of downtown.
Sonya Lucas stopped by the Terrazas Branch Library to hand out cake and ice cream — for her 50th birthday — to those living in the homeless encampment adjacent to the library’s parking lot. Lucas runs her own charity outreach ministry and comes downtown twice a week to give away food and supplies to those in need. [Photo by Kelly West]
The City of Austin set up Porta Potties and hand-sanitizing stations on library property for those living in the encampment, and occasionally a good samaritan stops by to hand out snacks, tacos, or toiletries. But those living in the camp are still without many of the basic amenities they had before.
In the library, they found air conditioning, outlets to charge their phones, a professional social worker, and tools to help them access opportunities that could move them toward housing.
“We were in a good position to serve our homeless because we were doing it when we were open to the public,” Weeks says. “We partner with many organizations — Central Health, Integral Care, Front Steps, and others — to provide services. It’s just a difficult situation to see, where they’re not readily able to get the things they need.”
Where the library can’t provide direct services, it can provide librarians, and about one-third of APL’s staff have chosen reassignment to city departments that coordinate broader efforts to assist the public during the pandemic.
Some librarians are now helping procure and distribute personal protective equipment to essential workers. Others are helping at food pantries, with emergency operations, or social media efforts.
Johnathan Parsons is the assistant manager at the University Hills Branch in northwest Austin. Before the pandemic, he spent his days managing financial records, reconciling accounts, and interacting with customers.
He spent a few weeks working from home when the library closed, but quickly became restless. Then he heard about an opportunity to staff the city’s isolation center — a hotel converted to an isolation space for those who’ve been exposed to the virus with no place to quarantine.
“I like the old maxim from Theodore Roosevelt: get action,” Parsons says. “For Roosevelt, it was about chasing away grief. I kinda wanted to chase away the anxiety.”
Before taking a job with APL, Parsons worked in a prison library for the State of Missouri. He’s also worked in hotels and was trained last year in emergency shelter operations. He assumed his first opportunity to apply that training would come in the wake of a hurricane, but instead he’s helping others through a natural disaster of a different kind.
Parsons is now working 12-hour night shifts at the isolation center four days a week. He oversees other staff who monitor each floor and deliver meals. He also coordinates with onsite nurses who monitor guests’ symptoms.
He’s become well-versed in the protocol for PPE and the different pathways through the building for people with different levels of exposure to the virus. “It’s so serious,” Parsons says. “You have to take every precaution. It’s quite an involved process getting everyone in and out of the building, but it’s also fun to take on a totally different role. There’s certain experiences I’ve had that I’ll never be able to have in a library.”
For Parsons’ colleagues, librarianship-from-home has meant shifting programs online, answering information requests, generating new eCards, and producing online content for a new channel called APL+, a video series with topics like songs in Spanish for infants and how to make a zine for teens.
Michael Harle, a youth programs specialist for APL, recently launched a new series called Spell Check, which breaks down the etymology of magical words from the Harry Potter series. He films the episodes in his home, drawing on his robust collection of Hogwarts memorabilia.
“I was thinking: How can I make this content teen specific? What do I have in my home that I can work with?” Harle says. “I learned from it myself. The whole thing became a fully fledged research essay.”
Before the pandemic, Harle spent most of his time in the Central Library’s teen area, sitting alongside teens, talking with them, coordinating programs, and providing customer service in other parts of the library. He also guides the Central Library’s teen council, a group of high-schoolers earning volunteer hours while they work to shape the space that belongs to their age group.
“We had a really great line-up of programming we developed for the Summer Reading Program,” Harle says, “and the teens had been integral to that. It was a program to push the idea of getting more teens into the library. But with the library closed, it had to be completely revised from its original version. We had to create something new in two months.”
Harle says he worries what library spaces will look like in the post-COVID world, but he’s proud of the shifts he’s seen as APL staff worked to navigate a radically changed environment.
“I love that the public has a hunger for books and for knowledge, and I think the library has done well providing that digitally — we did all that in two months,” Harle says. “I thought that was such an impressive movement, and I hope that’s seen as the value, rather than you guys didn’t open soon enough or you didn’t get us our books soon enough.”
For now, the library is holding steady in Phase 3 of its 5-step plan to reopen, allowing curbside service at half of its branches. To prepare for its eventual reopening, APL has devised new procedures to encourage safety and social distancing.
Every other computer will be closed at shared work-stations, and markings on the floors and furniture will help patrons space themselves out. But the region is seeing a record spike in coronavirus cases, and Director Weeks says APL is following the guidance of local health officials to monitor the situation closely.
“We’ve come to the point where the public depends on us. We provide an essential service,” Weeks says. “Most of our patrons have been understanding, and I can’t wait until we can safely open back up to the public. I don’t know when that will be, but I plan on donning some type of costume to welcome them back into the building. It’s gonna be fun, I can tell you that.”