As the branches of Muskoka’s three township's libraries prepare to reopen to the public, use of their services are more in demand than ever.
Across the region, public libraries are adjusting to new operations in the time of COVID-19, including increased online services and curbside pickup at some locations.
On Monday, the provincial government permitted libraries to reopen with “limited on-site services, such as computer access and contactless book pickup and drop-off.” Patrons are not to handle books or materials on shelves.
Cathy Fairbairn, CEO of Lake of Bays Township Public Library, operating branches in Baysville and Dwight, said curbside pickup has been a hit with patrons and demand is steadily increasing.
“It’s taking us a lot longer to get the items out the door because we stand and chat with them,” she said of the library’s users. “It feels like people are coming home.”
To ensure the health and safety of staff and patrons the library is collecting return items on a separate cart that is stored for 72 hours before staff touch it. Turnaround time for materials is a little longer, Fairbairn said, but users understand.
Plexiglas barriers are being installed, separate doors will be designated for entering and exiting and public computers will be cleaned following each use. Unfortunately, some of the toys in the kids section will be put away, “which is sad, but we have to be safe,” Fairbairn said.
In March, Lake of Bays Township council approved funding for subscriptions to media streaming sites like Hoopla and Canopy which offer ebooks, audio books and comics as well as television and films. “The timing could not have been better,” said Fairbairn.
As a result of the pandemic, new digital programming has also been popular among families, as library staff have pivoted to online formats.
“The response to those videos has been overwhelming,” Fairbairn said, citing more than 1,000 views on some posts, “which is way more than we can reach if we’re inside our walls.”
At the Georgian Bay Township Public Library, the MacTier and Port Severn branches are also offering curbside pickup and calls for the service are growing, said CEO Tracey Fitchett.
“The libraries have continued to grow their collections in order to keep reading materials and movies up-to-date,” Fitchett said in an email to this newspaper.
One of the unfortunate downsides the pandemic has presented is the halting of sales of used books and movies, an important source of revenue for library budgets, Fitchett explained.
Forgiven fines for late returns have also affected revenue, leaving a significant impact on the library, she added.
Opening a library where patrons are unable to touch the materials is a difficult thing to do, said Cathy Duck, CEO of Muskoka Lakes Public Library.
For the last four weeks the Port Carling branch has offered curbside pickup and staff are busy filling requests. Duck said phase two of reopening doesn’t change much at her library where the doors will not open to the public for some time yet.
“Typically in the summertime we are the community information centre, the community washroom, so if our doors are open we have to be prepared for that as well,” she said. “It’s not just about the library.”
Duck’s branches regularly provide senior and children’s programming that draw people from across the Township. “We were a very vibrant library here,” she explained. “We’re all missing that.”
Staff have moved some services, like story time, online but, recognize not everyone has access to the internet which can be a challenge. “A lot of our users are hard copy book users, they’re not electronic users.”
To keep patrons up-to-date the library uses its website and social platforms but it also has a forthcoming community survey, to be delivered with Mayor Phil Harding’s newsletter, to gauge how services are being received.
“It was part of our library strategic plan,” said Duck. “But because of how things are now, it’s morphed into a pandemic plan.”
At press time an official reopening date is still to be determined as Fairbairn consults with the library board and sets further precautions, but she knows people are anxious to visit. “For seniors in our area, the library is a huge part of their social life."
In the meantime, staff is working on compiling a list of work by Black authors and other relevant materials, anticipating requests in light of anti-racism protests occurring across the world.
Kristyn Anthony reports for Muskokaregion.com through the Local Journalism Initiative, a program funded by the Canadian government.
Kristyn Anthony, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, muskokaregion.com