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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

Libraries Plan Reopening in Phases. First Step, Curbside Pick Up

a photo of the Boardman Library sign
The Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County will begin offering curbside service this week at four of its branches, including this one in Boardman.

When Northeast Ohio libraries shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, many people lost a connection to crucial resources. The Ohio Library Council has been working with libraries to find new ways to serve patrons. 

This week some libraries will take the first step in reopening by offering curbside service. One of them is the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County. Director Aimee Fifarek talked about how their library services are evolving. 

Fifarek says most libraries, especially larger libraries, are adopting The Ohio Library Council's roadmap to reopening.

She says that involves a gradual restoration of services, that abides by state rules. "So our first step is curbside service. That will start on June 3," Fifarek said. 

A photo of the Boardman library parking lot
The Boardman Library branch parking lot is large enough to allow cars to queue for curbside service.

When deciding how to offer curbside service, Fifarek said they looked at the size of parking lots at each of the branches and where there was space for cars to form a line. The service will be offered at four locations, including the main library in downtown Youngstown and branch locations in Boardman, Canfield and Austintown. 

She says the library has already restarted special delivery service for people in nursing homes. 

The next phase will involve how to open the libraries so patrons can access computers. "That involves a lot of things," she said. "First and foremost, being able to get sufficient quantities of your personal protective equipment--masks, hand sanitizer, soap for the restrooms. All of those things that we need to have in bulk to keep people safe." 

They're also considering where computers are placed to allow for safe physical distancing. "So, one step at a time, slowly and carefully to keep everyone safe."

Planning each step of this phased reopening has required careful scrutiny of operations and safety. For example, with curbside service Fifarek says they had to think about how to check out and package the materials. "Normally when you place an item on hold, it sits on the hold shelf until you come into the library and then you either check it out yourself or bring it to the desk and a staff member does that for you," she said. "For this, when we're processing the holds, a staff member is checking them out immediately and then putting them into bags." 

Fifarek says while restaurants and even grocery stores had gotten into curbside service already, this is a first for libraries. "We're so used to people being able to come in the building and get their own materials and browse, that we really had to think through all the pieces of the process," she said. "I'm really happy to have been able to help access all the great minds across Ohio and the nation because all libraries were dealing with this change."

library closed sign
Since they've been closed, libraries have been working to provide digital access and determine a plan to reopen.

When library buildings closed, people turned to accessing materials online. Fifarek says digital usage has soared, and the vendors who provide it have stepped up to help. "So Overdrive, the company that provides Libby, made it easier for you to get a library card online and hoopla added content to the hoopla platformthat was basically free for libraries. Because with hoopla we get charged every time you check something out. And ancestry.com, which is an amazing resource for genealogical research normally is only available in the library, they actually made their website, their library subscription available to library card holders from home," Fifarek said. 

But she knows there is a digital divide and some people don't have readily available, reliable internet service at home. "While our buildings have been closed, one of the things we did was we moved our wireless access points closer to the edges of the buildings so that you would be able to access the wireless from the parking lot," she said. They've seen people doing homework or checking in with jobs from their vehicles.  

Fifarek says the pandemic has already had a lasting impact on how they will operate in the future. "We're spinning up services now out of desperation to serve the public that the public is really responding to," she said. "I would imagine curbside service is going to be very popular. So these are things that aren't going to go away once we are able to have people back into the buildings," she said. 

Fifarek says they're going to take advantage of what's worked and keep going. "So I think it's going to be massive changes for the library industry as it is for pretty much any industry that's been affected by this outbreak."

Aimee Fifarek is the director of the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County.

The Library’s summer reading program, Imagine Your Story, kicks off Monday virtually with programs online as well as games for children and adults.  

A Northeast Ohio native, Sarah Taylor graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio where she worked at her first NPR station, WMUB. She began her professional career at WCKY-AM in Cincinnati and spent two decades in television news, the bulk of them at WKBN in Youngstown (as Sarah Eisler). For the past three years, Sarah has taught a variety of courses in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State, where she is also pursuing a Master’s degree. Sarah and her husband Scott, have two children. They live in Tallmadge.