Digital Resources Keep Libraries ‘Open’ Amid Pandemic

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Walking into the library to pick up a book or DVD may no longer be an option for patrons during the COVID-19 pandemic, but that doesn’t mean the institutions are no longer serving the public.  

Area library systems have had to adapt under public orders limiting gatherings, mandating safe distances and outright closing nonessential businesses. 

In their case, libraries are relying greatly on online resources that have been a growing part of how they serve the public: digital books and movies, CDs, audiobooks and even their Wi-Fi networks. 

The Mahoning Valley’s two largest library systems, the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County and the Warren-Trumbull County Public Library, and other libraries closed to the public during the pandemic. The closings, which began in mid-March, followed shutdowns and social distancing advisories by Gov. Mike DeWine and Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton. 

Cardholders for the Youngstown and Warren libraries and McKinley Memorial Library in Niles can access content including e-books, audiobooks, movies, television series and albums in digital format via apps for smart devices such as Hoopla and OverDrive’s Libby service.

“It’s important for the customer who is sheltering at home and unable to get physical materials to have access to e-books, e-audiobooks and other digital options through the library,” says Jim Wilkins, the Warren-Trumbull library’s director.   

“We have been really working hard to serve the community in all the ways it demands, says Aimee Fifarek, executive director of the Mahoning County library system. “Our core reason for being is to meet our community’s needs and connect people with quality information, whether that’s for fun and entertainment and general enrichment, or whether it’s to help further skills building to improve job access or for economic development reasons in order to build business within our community.”   

The Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County reported 655 registrations for OverDrive in March and 19,936 titles in use on Libby, up from 347 registrations and 19,207 titles in February.  

With the closings of the library buildings, daily new patron signups have jumped into double digits, from three or four per day prior, Fifarek reports. On March 24, 27 new patrons signed up for Hoopla, for example. 

“That’s indicative of what we’re seeing across the board,” she says. 

Overdrive’s Libby is structured like a physical collection, with a set number of copies of an item available to be borrowed at once, says Michelle Alleman, library director at the McKinley Memorial Library in Niles. On Hoopla, all items are always available.

“Each library sets how many checkouts they have,” Alleman says. Hoopla recently added a new collection of bonus material that isn’t counted against an individual borrower’s limits. 

Over the past four weeks, OverDrive has seen a 21% increase in use when compared with the first six weeks of 2020, reports Cheryl Bush, marketing and public information manager at the Warren-Trumbull County system.

In-demand resources include materials to assist parents or guardians with the learning process of their children, who now must complete coursework online with the closing of school buildings in Ohio.    

“Obviously the schools are providing take-home homework but there are a lot of hours in the day and a lot of learning to be done, so parents themselves might not have the skills or the resources to guide kids through their projects,” Fifarek says. 

Since libraries already cater to parents who homeschool their children, they have “a lot of great resources’ available to use, she says.

Libraries also are again able to purchase e-books from Macmillan Publishers under the rules in effect prior to Nov. 1. Under the new rules, libraries – regardless of size or number of branches – could only purchase a single copy of a new title for the first eight weeks after its release.

“There are times in life when differences should be put aside,” Macmillan CEO John Sargent says in his March 17 letter to librarians, authors, illustrators and agents. In addition, he says the publisher would lower prices on certain e-book titles “on a short-term basis” so libraries could expand their collections.   

“We are very pleased and happy for our customers. We have been working with the publishers to allow equal access for all our customers and it is good to see a successful resolution to that issue,” the Warren-Trumbull County Library Public Library’s Watkins says. 

“That’s a positive thing,” McKinley’s Alleman affirms. 

Other organizations and companies also are allowing additional access to resources, including certain databases that are being made available to the public at no charge, she says.  

Like her colleagues, Fifarek was pleased to be able to purchase new materials from Macmillan following the removal of the new restrictions. Those restrictions were put in place because the publisher decided library borrows were cutting into its profit margin. 

“We thought that was an arbitrary decision,” she says. “We’re not sure what data they have, but we know that library users are also book buyers.”  

However, there are going to be limits as to what extent libraries can take advantage of the restriction’s relaxation, as many publishers are putting off the launch of new titles during the pandemic, she reports. In addition to many books being delayed that tie into motion pictures that are being held for release.

“There is a certain amount of wanting to have important authors have good audiences that they deserve which they might not get if they release new titles during this time,” she says.   

Access to services like Libby and Hoopla comes through traditional library cards or new digital cards. 

“We have more people requesting cards and we are able to do that online,” Alleman says. 

Even before McKinley had to close, it offered a virtual library card. 

“People fill out a form on our website and they’ll get an email that has their barcode and pin number,” she says.    

The Youngstown and Warren systems also offer options for online signups for library cards. In February, the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County registered 1,185 full-service and digital cards, reports Janet Loew, marketing director for the system. 

In February, 907 total cards were issued, including 500 digital cards. “Of course, since March 16 when we closed, we are only issuing digital library cards,” she says. 

OverDrive also has an option for individuals to sign up using their cell phone number, Alleman says. 

Beyond their role in providing digital materials, local libraries also are leaving their Wi-Fi active so it can be used by people just outside their buildings who might otherwise lack internet access. 

“We know how important this service can be for people who may not have access to the Internet from home as they need to connect with online resources and information,” the Warren-Trumbull County system’s Bush says.  

McKinley and the Youngstown-Mahoning County system also are leaving their Wi-Fi on for public use, though Loew cautions that reception could vary. 

As part of its civic engagement effort, the Mahoning County system is also doing what it can to assist with the upcoming election and the U.S. Census and via social media, and is conducting book chats and book readings for children, Fifarek says. 

Libraries are relying on public domain works so as not to infringe on copyrights. In the wake of the pandemic, some authors, including fantasy author Neil Gaiman, have given wide-ranging blanket permission for using the works in virtual library events.

“In many cases, their publishers have tried to walk back those promises but Neil Gaiman is of such a stature that he can push back and say, ‘I don’t care. Use my work.’ We love Neil Gaiman in the library world,” Fifarek says. 

Pictured: Signs on the doors of Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County branches direct would-be visitors to its online resources.     

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.