King County libraries are closed. All of them. Patrons can’t even return their checked out books right now, as the King County Library System (KCLS) does its best to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“I have 30 years experience. I’ve never seen anything like this,” Lisa Rosenblum, KCLS executive director, said. “I’ve been in earthquakes, floods and snow conditions in New York, [libraries] are the last ones to close because we know our public relies upon us to be open.”
Libraries serve various social services for the community. Far from just being communally owned books, libraries offer computers, community programs and classes and sometimes most importantly — a safe space to be. When school is out, kids may sit at the library before they can head home. When the weather is cold and rainy, those without homes may find refuge in a local library.
Rosenblum said the libraries implemented safety measures as much of the state did, from canceling events and programs to removing chairs and implementing social distancing. When Gov. Jay Inslee decided to close down schools across the state, Rosenblum made the decision to close the libraries. She said that each cancellation and eventual closure has been a heartbreak.
“[Library staff] hate to close too, because they’re professionals, but they understand why we can’t have them coming into the buildings right now,” Rosenblum said. “They’re largely supportive, but they’re scared too. They might have children, they might be over 60, they might have elderly parents. They’re kind of feeling the same way everybody in the Puget Sound is feeling right now.”
Aside from closures for inclement weather, there aren’t any notable times the library system has closed across King County, even in previous war times or pandemics. Although the library system was established in the middle of WWII, the recurring word from KCLS staff is “unprecedented.”
The library is still paying all of its employees, Rosenblum said, and many are working from home on digital campaigns. The increase in digital needs has only heightened during the social distancing and stay-at-home orders (Rosenblum interviewed with Sound Publishing Friday before the stay-at-home orders came from Inslee).
“We’re seeing a 35 percent increase between last year at this time and this year in our digital downloads,” Rosenblum said. “We also offer an e-card. If you’re a resident of King County you can download a library card and get access to all of our digital materials…We’ve seen a 389 percent increase in requests for e-cards.”
KCLS is also keeping the wi-fi on in its buildings and pushing the range out to the parking lots, so people can access library wi-fi without leaving their cars. While KCLS isn’t encouraging people to be outside, one library employee even used his local library’s connection to call into his daily e-meeting.
KCLS is second in the nation for digital lending, according to Rosenblum. The digital lending company OverDrive listed KCLS as second only to the Los Angeles Public Library in 2019.
Library employees are now pushing to up digital availability. Whether it be dedicating staff to answer questions about e-card enrollment or digital borrowing, Rosenblum and her team know they will have plenty of opportunities to serve, even from their own homes.
“Our IT folks — who have always been really important to the library — are really, really important now…that’s put some pressure on them and they’ve risen to it beautifully to really set this entire library up to be a remote working space,” Rosenblum said. She said they expect to invest more in training webinars that will not require people to come to the office for training in the future.
The library system has also ceased the ordering of all physical books as staff wait to see how long closures will be necessary. It has added $350,000 of digital purchasing for e-books, audiobooks and downloadables, according to Rosenblum. Normally when the library has five holds on one e-book, it purchases a new copy of that book to ensure no one waits more than three months for a book. KCLS has reduced that to a four-to-one ratio.
Rosenblum has also spent time contacting national publishers and e-book providers to try and get them to offer lower prices or more digital content during the pandemic. The library is also doing pre-recorded story time, offering expanded online tutoring and answering reference questions by email, phone or online chat.
In addition to online services, the library system is also offering a temporary lift on any cards that are blocked due to fines, suspending collection agencies while closed and waiving all late fees accrued between March 1 and April 30.
“If people haven’t tried our digital resources, now is the time…We have access to many newspapers across the country, you just need a library card to get into them…We have lots of resources and information for (genealogy research)…stories for children…educational videos,” Rosenblum said. “We want to be open, but until we can, we’re still your library system.”