Fifarek Updates Library Renovation, Diversity Efforts

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Bids for the first phase of the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County’s $25 million renovation should go out later this month, said Library Director Aimee Fifarek. 

During Thursday’s meeting of the library’s board of trustees, Fifarek also provided an update on the system’s operations during the coronavirus pandemic and plans to improve inclusivity in the wake of issues raised by the death of George Floyd. 

The first phase of the Main Library renovation will focus on the grounds around the library, including addressing two-thirds of the parking area, Fifarek said during the virtual meeting. She could not provide a date yet for when the bids would be let, but said the rest of the project would be bid later. 

She praised the design team’s creativity. “I can’t wait to share more information on that,” she said.  

The library’s board met virtually Thursday afternoon, just one of the adjustments the system has made since closing its buildings because of the coronavirus. 

All library buildings were closed to the public March 15, and administrative staff spent the next two days to adapt to a virtual service environment that would permit librarians to continue providing services including online programming and reference services. About a fourth of the staff is working virtually from home and another quarter is on furlough, Fifarek reported.

During the following two months, staffers answered 1,500 calls, conducted more than 250 online programs, created 571 posts on the library’s social media platforms that received 981,198 views, and answered more than 400 reference questions. 

“It’s been a fascinating couple of months,” she remarked. 

She thanked the administrative team for figuring out how to start up and provide services that the library has never done before, as well as the front-line staff that is providing those services. “They have been remarkably resilient, creative and patient with all of this craziness,” she said.   

The most recent of the new services to be implemented was curbside service at the Main, Austintown, Boardman and Canfield branches, which started June 3. So far, the new service is going well, she said. On June 8, the library had 1,472 items newly prepared to fill curbside pickup requests, Fifarek said. 

“It seems everyone wants to pick up their books at Boardman,” she remarked. “They have been especially busy.”  

The library has put together a safe services task force – primarily made up of people with daily customers – to establish protocols that will be used as the library restarts computer services, one of the services that Fifarek plans to begin offering in July. 

Computer services will only be offered at four branches, with the edges and center of Mahoning County targeted to broaden geographic coverage, she said. None of those four will be branches that are now offering curbside services.  

Use of meeting spaces, browsing and in-person programing will be brought online as mass gathering restrictions allow. The library is exploring permitting browsing at branches “in the not-so-distant future” using the regulations governing grocery stores as a guideline. 

“At this point we don’t have solid data on how long the coronavirus lives on library materials,” she said. Batelle Memorial Institute in Columbus is conducting research on the topic and she expects the first round of data to be out this month. 

She also praised her staff for their work during the “unprecedented situation” of the pandemic. “I can’t thank everybody enough for everything they have done to date,” she said.  

Dr. David Ritchie, president of the library board, said Fifarek deserved special thanks for doing “one hell of a job” during the challenging time. 

Mark Mrofchak, fiscal officer, reported on the pandemic’s impact on the system’s finances. While real estate tax collections year to date are up by more than $98,000 compared to last year at this time, money from the state Public Library Fund is below last year’s projections by more than $241,000. 

May’s distribution from the fund was down 35% because of the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, and estimates for June and July’s distributions reflect drops of 16% and 13%, respectively, he said.   

Because of the budget shortfalls, the library is imposing a hiring freeze, except to fill two vacancies, the library’s community resource specialist and its human resources director.    

As the library prepares to develop its next strategic plan, one area that Fifarek said she wants to emphasize is diversity, a concern that has received renewed attention following the death of Floyd, a black man who died in custody of Minneapolis police. 

She stressed she wants equity, diversity and inclusion to be more of a priority for the library, beginning with but not limited to restarting the library’s diversity committee. 

Floyd’s killing has spurred widespread protests and discussions around police brutality and systemic racism. Last week, the library issued a statement expressing its support for working toward “equity and inclusion” in the community. 

“We’re also looking to take action,” and including a diversity-equity-inclusion platform in the new strategic plan will be very important, Fifarek told her board. “I’ve encouraged staff as we move forward to see how we can make sure that diverse voices are included in our services and all aspects of our offering as we go forward.” 

The library’s diversity committee, which has “lain fallow” for a while, will include staff from all functional areas of the library, will hold the library accountable and make sure it is talking to “all members of the community with everything we do” and addressing their needs in programming and services, she said. 

“A lot of times when you have plans to make initiatives, they might not happen because there’s always something more important,” she said. “If the last few weeks have told us anything, it’s that we have to stop letting things be more important and make sure everybody in the community feels represented.” 

Fifarek said she has other ideas she wants to explore as well, but declined to discuss them as she has not shared them with staff yet. She told her staff that good words are one thing, but they really don’t matter unless they are matched with actions. Once those initiatives are announced to the public, people can hold the library accountable for following through. 

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.