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Despite COVID-19 challenges, libraries find ways to offer an escape from the pandemic

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CCPL curbside service

The Charleston County Public Library implemented curbside service at several of its branches as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Charleston County Public Library/Provided

When the coronavirus pandemic upended daily life in South Carolina, many businesses and public services ground to a halt. But Charleston libraries were determined to find a way of reaching their patrons.

The Charleston County Public Library's branches had to abruptly shut down March 16 as part of the statewide effort to help stop the spread of COVID-19 once cases started appearing. With in-person services impossible at the time, library staff searched for ideas to connect the community with books, educational materials and even unemployment assistance through a not fully developed digital platform.

"I think there was always a hesitation to put too much online in case people didn't come into our buildings," said Angela Craig, the library's executive director.

While their buildings were closed, digital became the only option. Staff members started filming lessons and story times, cultivating a library experience completely on the web.

A few months later, on June 8, many branches started offering curbside pickup of library materials, where patrons would typically stay in their car while a masked employee brought out items on hold. 

During the months of closure, the pandemic wasn't the only thing on the community's mind. When protests began around the country after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, dozens of people reached out to the library for reading lists about racial inequality. Parents would call and ask how to explain racism to their children.

"It really crystallized that the library is an important community connector," Craig said.

With patrons unable to browse the shelves, librarians had to get creative in helping them find new books. Library staff created book bundles for children and adults, which would revolve around that patron's interests — mystery novels, romances or books on dinosaurs, for instance. They also offered take-and-make crafts.

Digital materials also became more popular. During the period of March 16 to Aug. 21, the combined e-book and audiobook checkouts were 280,337 — a 55 percent increase from the same period last year. 

For many people, going to the library was a much-loved routine and a good outlet. While it was closed, some called library staff "just to have someone to talk to," said Amy Adams, assistant manager at the Baxter-Patrick James Island Branch.

Many community members also depend on the library for access to technology and information. As the pandemic disrupted the economy, Adams recalls several people calling to ask for help with unemployment and looking for work.

More than anything, people of all ages needed library materials as an escape. Children would often say they'd "read everything in the house" and were desperate for entertainment as the community was urged to hunker down and self-isolate, said Chris Johnston, branch manager at the Baxter-Patrick James Island location.

On Aug. 10, branches began reopening, with nearly all planned to open their doors by Sept. 8.

Patrons and staff must wear masks inside the buildings, and patrons are encouraged to not stay more than an hour due to occupancy limits. Any materials patrons touch but don't check out must be put inside a designated cart to be sanatized. 

Despite the success of curbside services and digital offerings, the librarians are glad that they've been able to bring patrons back into the buildings. However, they'll continue to maintain the digital presence they created during the pandemic.

"People have been so joyful and happy when they come back to the library," Adams said. 

Reach Fleming Smith at 843-937-5591. Follow her on Twitter at @MFlemingSmith.

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