Photos by David Ricketts
No one could have imagined that Salt Lake City libraries would be closed to the public for the better part of a year. The libraries tried to re-open last fall, but when COVID-19 cases spiked, they had to shut down again. Now, they’re open for limited use as of March 15. Patrons can spend up to an hour at a time in the libraries.
Many members of the community rely on libraries to get critical work done – to pay bills, make insurance claims, file court documents or apply for jobs. During the pandemic, those services were largely interrupted, even as demand persisted or even compounded.
Day-Riverside Branch Manager Erin Mendoza said her usual patrons are among the most vulnerable in the city as they work in the “service industries” and risked daily exposure to the COVID virus.
Mendoza also said patrons who are homeless, who are always vulnerable, were even more destitute after the pandemic forced libraries to close their doors to the public. “They needed a safe, warm place to go, and when we had to shut down, they literally had no place else to go,” said Mendoza.
One encounter that both sobered and gratified Glendale Branch Manager Brooke Young was her experience helping a woman who was living in her car. “She managed to get a job, but she needed to fax at least a dozen documents to a number of government agencies and to a non-profit organization willing to help her with some of her rent at her new apartment,” Young said.
Patty Steed is another veteran Salt Lake City librarian who was forced to balance pandemic precautions and library services. Today, she serves as the branch manager of the venerable Chapman Library, now celebrating 103 years in operation. “While our community was disappointed when we had to shut down, they were also very supportive and understood the necessity,” said Steed. “This community, which is somewhere between 50-60% Latino, was hit hardest during the pandemic.”
At all the branches, library staff have tried to find other ways to be helpful.
Through the early months of COVID, all the branches’ staff learned to connect creatively with each other and with their patrons. For example, all city branches offered take-home craft kits called “Take and Makes” with projects such as pillow, magnet, and macramé plant holder kits.
Those innovations also extend to more traditional library services, and are often as simple as a phone call. “People can call and tell us ‘I have a three year old who’s interested in trucks – do you have any picture books in Spanish about trucks?’ and we’ll gather 20 books on trucks and have it ready so they can pick up the sack of books,” said Young. Unsurprisingly, ebook check-outs have “gone through the roof.”
Young said during these troubled times, they also got some much-needed help. ”We received a large federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Science to hire digital navigators – to start to close the digital gap that the community has,” she said. “They meet people and help them find hot spots and low-cost internet. We’ve now given out more than 200 laptops and we’re still helping our families get access to digital services.”
“But one thing that has been surprising and gratifying is how much people love and miss the library, and how much they want our physical materials,” said Young. “They want the books, they want the DVDs and they miss the meeting spaces.”
Over the past year, it has been unusually quiet in the Glendale Branch. Young and her team miss all the kids who used to hang out at the Glendale Library afterschool and worry about the older adults who used to come in and read the papers every morning and catch up with their friends.
Because the Glendale Branch is close to at least six schools – including elementary and secondary schools – students typically come to the library and wait for their parents to get off work and pick them up.
“Having 150 kids in this library every day is a blessing and a curse. There’s an incredibly loud wall of noise,” she said. “When other patrons come in, they don’t appreciate it, but they put up with it.”
In contrast, Chapman is more of an old-fashioned, quiet library.
During the shut-down, Chapman staff began serving a couple that visited the library every Wednesday to pick up books. The staff loads books, mostly fiction, in one bag for the wife and one for her husband. “She climbs up the stairs and knocks on the door,” Steed said. “Sometimes her husband is waiting for her in their car. I look forward to having them in the library again.”
Steed described another older patron, who “had struggled with ordering DVDs online, pre-pandemic. Now, she’s a pro! She uses the app on her phone.”
Steed and her colleagues at the other west-side branches said they can’t wait for the ‘new normal,’ and they appreciate now more than ever that their work not only provides books, DVDs and craft kits, but also much-needed social connection.
At the Day-Riverside Branch, Mendoza said that before the pandemic a number of older adults would visit the library every morning. “They would come in to read the newspapers and socialize with their friends,” she said. “Frankly, I’m worried about some of them, because the library is often the only time of their day when they’re not alone.”
All three branch managers said they’ve learned a lot and that the brainstorming and innovations will serve these communities in the future.
Like the other west-side libraries, Steed and her team serve their very diverse communities with technical support. Before the libraries opened back up on March 15, the Chapman staff used the COVID down time to set up computers, printers, fax machines and other tech gear to provide for safe social distancing.
The computers and printers are set up on tables that were built 100 years ago, along with the shelves that hold books, DVDs, newspapers and magazines. Like all public libraries, tax forms are available through April 15, along with staff to help fill out and file tax forms.
She concluded by finding a silver lining in these opportunities to improve infrastructure and processes. “When the COVID pandemic passes and it’s safe for all of us to gather in the library, I think we’ll retain some of the innovations that we came up with.”