Libraries Find Ways to Deliver Hope & Positivity in Uncertain Times

Seattle Public Library

Quietly in the background, as the world went into lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic saw library activity increase around the world. People began to seek refuge in reading and rediscover the books at their local libraries. As a result, libraries have been forced to adapt quickly to radically increased readership, the demand for digital content and the enforcement of social distancing measures. 

In the past three months, more books have been checked-out than ever before. New York Public Library saw an 864% increase in digital library card sign ups and a 200% increase in new e-reading users and unique views of free educational resources. In the USA, Arlington Public Library is working with local children and artists to produce quaranzines. Meanwhile, in Sweden, Helsingborg libraries have introduced a new user-friendly chat function on their websites. 

In Canada, at the largest public library system in North America, the Toronto Public Library (TPL) has seen similar results and innovation. We asked TPL how readers' needs and behaviors have changed as a result of COVID-19 and how the TPL has responded. 

How has the pandemic affected the TPL community? 

There has been a tremendous amount of work happening as TPL staff continue to deliver library service to our customers, and support the City’s efforts to combat COVID-19. The library is proud to help serve our customers, our colleagues, and our communities and contribute positively to the health and well-being of our great city.  

We’ve been able to connect Torontonians to critical information and updates about COVID-19, posting credible resources to help readers navigate the overwhelming amount of information – and misinformation – about the virus. We published a self-care and mental well-being information, a reading list and resource guide as part of Mental Health week. 

Within our communities, we quickly developed new partnerships and provided spaces, tools and staff to support critical relief activities. These include: repurposing library buildings as alternate service locations for city food banks, providing free books for kids in food bank food hampers, lending our tools and equipment to support COVID-19 medical efforts, wi-fi hotspot lending, and a new Internet Connectivity Kit program that provides vital connection for some of our city’s most vulnerable residents.  

What service changes or new offerings has the TPL introduced in response to the pandemic?  

The library has shifted the purchasing of digital content during the closure as demand has surged. We have grown our extensive collection of ebooks, audiobooks, comics and videos for the whole family, and a variety of resources that support everyone’s interests and online learning and development. 

On April 15, TPL launched the Instant Digital Card, which gives non-TPL cardholders in Toronto free, temporary access to a large collection of ebooks, e-audiobooks, and e-magazines through OverDrive. To date, 16,086 new customers have registered for the Instant Digital Card.  

With our branches closed and the increased use of our online resources, we next looked at moving our most popular programming online. The live and online programs are for audiences of all ages. These programs and events suit everyone’s interests, from story times and book clubs, to digital innovation and personal finance. Recently, close to 500 people joined the livestream conversation with The Eccentric Life of Edward Gorey author Mark Dery. This was the first of many more programs this team has planned. 

This year, we shifted the TD Summer Reading Club (TDSRC) online. TDSRC is Canada’s largest, bilingual summer reading program, co-created and delivered by more than 2,000 public libraries across Canada – and kids of all ages and abilities rely on the program to inspire them to explore the joy of reading throughout the summer. 

TPL staff have been creating blog content that promotes our collections and online resources, provides information and readers’ advisory services, offers online learning opportunities and brings online communities together. A unique, fun example is when we asked Torontonians to adapt wartime posters to speak to the new historic moment we're currently in 

We’ve also updated our website and newsletter to better serve our customers. The homepage is updated regularly with engaging activities, reading recommendations by library staff, online program information and much more. We’ve renamed our newsletter, What’s On: Home Edition, to keep customers up to date on the latest TPL has to offer virtually.  

Our vendors have worked with us to help extend access or lifted limits on popular digital content. TPL customers now have free access to Ancestry Library Edition from anywhere; until now, this popular genealogy (family research) tool was only available on computers at library branches or remotely with a paid subscription. Additionally, our customers can now access more check-outs on services such as Hoopla and Kanopy 

How have readers responded to these changes and new offerings?

Demand for online services has significantly increased as customers shift towards digital. Use of TPL online digital content (e-books, e-audiobooks, emagazines, and streaming video) has increased.  

Over 21,000 people have signed up for an Instant Digital Card to access TPL’s OverDrive collection since we launched the service on April 15. Use of our streaming video services, Hoopla and Kanopy, is up 87% from pre-closure. Use of OverDrive (ebooks and audiobooks) is up 24% from pre-closure. 

Will any of the changes continue post-pandemic? 

Use of our e-resources was trending upwards pre-pandemic, so we predict that use and demand will continue. We also expect to continue to provide digital programming options to our customers. The online platform, whether live or on-demand, increases accessibility to our programs and extends our reach to new audiences and communities. 

We also plan to continue providing food bank services at two of our branches this Summer, and are committed to continue to work with our food bank partners on food and income security programs. 

What role do you see the TPL playing in Toronto's healthy emergence from the pandemic? 

The first and most important way we hope to support Toronto’s reopen, recovery and rebuild plans is to get our branch doors open and all services up and running for residents and communities as soon as it is safe to do so. We have missed seeing customers and they told us that they really missed being able to go to their local library. The pandemic has reinforced for all of us that people want and need to be connected to each other and their communities, and many people, of all ages, have told us the local library is a first and important point of connection for them. 

Longer term, we are excited to be launching our new strategic plan Vital to Toronto: Building Success, Resilience and Well-Being for our City. From talking to residents and communities, and through our research, we know that the pandemic has had, and will continue to have, a huge impact on the economy and the way we live, and work. For example, the pandemic has accelerated existing trends towards e-government, online learning and education, remote work, and technology trends; including ecommerce, streaming and telehealth making the need for digital access and digital literacy even more critical. There will be a new normal. 

We have also learned that the impacts of the pandemic have impacted some communities and people, especially vulnerable people, and as a result we must address the growing economic and societal inequalities in our city. Toronto must be a city where everyone has equal access to life chances and opportunities, and TPL has a critical role in supporting that vision. 

So, we are going to work with our staff, partners and communities to deliver on the plan’s priorities – offering online and in branch space, advancing digital literacy and inclusion, supporting workforce development and upskilling, and helping people engage in community discussions and decision making priorities people have told us are even more important now. 

Thinking back, the pandemic has impacted all of us in ways that none of us could have imagined even six months ago – and this is true for TPL as well.

What we can tell you with certainty is that whatever the path and timing to reopening and recovery is, TPL will adapt and deliver services people have told us are important. In this way, we hope to support better opportunities and life chances for everyone.