Calgary libraries shuttered, but online they're bustling

When Calgary's new Central Library opened in 2018,  the operations centre had to spring into action. People were enthusiastically taking out copies of children's books all at once. 

So, staff had to adapt quickly to keep those shelves stocked.

And now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the teams at the library are doing the same — but online.

On March 15, Mayor Naheed Nenshi declared a local state of emergency in Calgary. He listed off closures: gyms, pools, rec centres and more.

"Particularly heartbreaking for me … we are closing the Calgary Public Library branches," Nenshi said. "This is tough. People rely on these services as outlets for themselves as places to go. For many, many people, they are, in fact, lifelines."

That lifeline is very much still open, according to Mary Kapusta at the Calgary Public Library.

Library still open, just online

"There's a lot of people coming to the library, some who are already users. But also we're seeing some new members coming in, people who have a little bit of time to explore what the library can offer," said Kapusta, communications director. 

Not only does the library already have a hefty digital collection of e-books and audio books, there are other educational resources that can help users learn a new language, retrain for a job and even keep kids, now stuck at home, busy.

And Kapusta says the library is doing more to shift its budget toward digital amid the coronavirus closures, including new resources and worksheets developed by employees and subject matter experts. 

Creating new materials

"We're so lucky with the library, we have subject matter experts for all this in areas that can provide curriculum-connected content," Kapusta said. "So we're going to be releasing some activities — these could be worksheets, these could be downloads — and then also some videos."

This week, even the storytime sessions parents and their kids usually visited branch locations for will be done online. 

"We know that our libraries, our physical spaces, are really important," Kapusta said. 'They're really critical community hubs, but at this time, we can't have those spaces available to the public. And while we wait to reopen, I think this is a great time to think about our digital circulation."

Dan McGarvey/CBC

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Alberta, CBC News toured the library's operations centre. That's where selectors, those who decide what gets added to the library's collection, do their work.

The library's staff, including its collections staff, continue to work through the coronavirus branch closures.

They read the news, they stay on top of the trends, meet with publishers, look out for reading lists from Oprah Winfrey and other celebs. Then, they decide how many copies to order for the 723,000 people who use the library.

But, occasionally, these professionals are surprised, and in the wake of COVID-19, they are being asked to adapt. 

Helen Pike/CBC

"We can't watch everything. There are so many different ways to get information about books," said Anne Marie Fryer, digital resources manager. "Some things do come as a surprise … like poetry by Rupi Kaur … sort of came out of the blue. She kind of rose to a place where we were buying lots of books and digital copies as well."

Fryer watches over a growing electronic collection — things like e-books and the library's streaming service. There are nearly 200,000 electronic books in the digital catalogue and she said it's growing every day.  

Stephen Gibbs, collections selector, said books are chosen based on a diverse picture of Calgary. He puts his taste aside and thinks about what the general public might like. Then, that book is prepped to go into circulation at a warehouse few have visited, or even thought about.

Tidbits from the operations centre

  • Harry Potter has been one of the top series at the Calgary Public Library for a decade.
  • Calgary has had some of its library books returned from far away places, like Florida or Kentucky. Librarians assume this is because they got lost in a cross-continental move. 
  • Once, a book was returned with a slice of cooked bacon inside. The meaty bookmark ruined the book and it was taken out of circulation.

 

Gibbs knows the city like the back of his hand. He can even tell you that tastes vary based on branch locations. For example, a cozy mystery novel might not pick up at one branch — but if it is at the Fish Creek location, it flies off the shelf.

Typically, every year, Calgarians contribute more than 18,000 suggestions — things the library should be carrying or carrying more of. And those selections help inform what goes into the collection.

One of the good things about the digital collection, Fryer explained, is that it is flexible. When the library sees demand, it can act. Which is what it will do during the COVID-19 pandemic.