Use of online county library services skyrockets during pandemic
The use of virtual services provided by libraries in Washington County has skyrocketed since public buildings have closed and Oregonians have been directed to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Officials with Washington County Cooperative Library Services say patrons of the library system are more frequently checking out audiobooks and streaming movies.
While library buildings themselves are closed, many library staff are still working, and they are still fielding plenty of questions.
"We tried to have our staff at home and ready to help, more or less, as the libraries were closing down," said WCCLS manager Lisa Tattersall. "I'm glad we jumped the gun a little bit and took early action so that we could just focus on supporting the libraries, and my IT team was incredible in getting this all set up for that."
Tattersall credits her information technology staff with predicting there might be a lockdown of sorts of libraries and other facilities, something that was happening in California at that time.
As a result, Tattersall said she got her team working as remotely as possible as quickly as possible so they could help respective libraries, most of which are operated by cities or community groups.
The library system is a partnership with Washington County along with nine cities and three nonprofit organizations, providing not only the primary source of funding for local libraries but also handling all the support systems that tie those libraries together.
As word of the pandemic spread in the early part of March, all of the members of the library system began shutting down their respective libraries. There are 16, all told, ranging from little community libraries like West Slope and Aloha to bigger city libraries in Hillsboro and Beaverton.
Almost immediately, requests for online library resources rose considerably, Tattersall said.
Individual library card sign-ups nearly doubled. Last March, the library handed out 406 new library cards. This March, it signed up 785.
"It was epic," said Tattersall. The response from patrons, she added, "has been huge and really encouraging."
The library system has also seen large increases in new users of the downloadable e-books and audiobooks as well, to the tune of an 115% increase, also as measured from last March to March of this year.
But the largest increase has been seen in streaming movies and videos, from 7,627 last March to 26,650 this March — an increase of 210%.
What has proved extremely popular during the pandemic is the library system's subscription to Kanopy, a Netflix-type streaming service that now allows library users 20 free views of popular video and movies per month, up from the limit of 10 that had been in place before the coronavirus outbreak.
"They have wonderful content," said Tattersall. "A lot of sort of classic films, indie films, world films, documentaries, educational stuff, and they've also got really wonderful, high-quality kids' content as well."
Online questions to WCCLS staff have almost doubled from the same time frame, too.
"It may have been awhile since they used the library, and so maybe they forgot their PIN number, or they're not clear about how to get started with e-books," Tattersall explained.
WCCLS is based out of the Washington County Juvenile Services Building in downtown Hillsboro, with member libraries scattered across the county, from Banks to Garden Home to Tualatin. Currently, most library staff are working remotely.
For Tattersall's crew, even though they're not in the office, it's business as usual. They continue to provide support for libraries that are offering digital content, or aiding with information technology and public engagement.
"All of that is still happening, just in a different way," Tattersall said. "A lot of my staff are busier than ever."
In fact, WCCLS just recently hired a communications coordinator, Denice Bradbury. It's a new position for the library system, intended to improve both internal coordination between member libraries and outreach to patrons and stakeholders. Bradbury has been integrated into the team even as she is working remotely.
Tattersall said plans are already underway for summer reading.
With classes canceled at least through the end of the school year — the Oregon Department of Education has instead directed schools to provide "distance learning" through virtual instruction and lesson plans — the way that summer reading will work this year could be very different than past years' programs, which have had themes like "A Universe of Stories" and brought hundreds of people into area libraries for author visits, workshops and lectures.
Tattersall said libraries are looking at ways to coordinate with summer lunch programs that local school districts provide. The idea is to get "new books in the hands of hungry kids," Tattersall said, while preparing for the possibility that library buildings may be closed or operating with restrictions into the summer. Sites are expected to be tentatively identified by mid-May.
Meanwhile, Tattersall said her staff has been putting together lists of great e-books for kids to read at home and has even connected with the county's emergency operations center, which is handing out WCCLS-donated books in boxes of supplies that they give to families with new babies.
At the same time, people are using the WCCLS' social media more as well as a way to stay connected.
"I think everyone is interested in information and connecting with their community right now," Tattersall said. "I think they miss us at the library, and we miss them — so this is one way that people feel they're in touch with the organizations in their community."
Mark Miller contributed to this report.
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