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Out Of The Stacks And Onto Your Phone: How To Make The Most Of Libraries During Social Distancing

Photo of the salt lake city downtown library
Brian Grimmett
Though library buildings are closed indefinitely right now, they can still play a connecting role in a crisis. "

For entertainment during social distancing, you might be relying on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and Disney+, but what about your local library?

Like other agencies and organizations stepping in to help out with today’s challenges, libraries are offering more ways to keep yourself and your kids occupied while staying home. Executive director of the Salt Lake City Public Library Peter Bromberg spoke to KUER’s Caroline Ballard from his home, and said even though their library buildings are now closed indefinitely, they can still play a connecting role in a crisis. 

Caroline Ballard: What are some library resources people can access while social distancing?

Peter Bromberg: There are lots of people who may not have library cards where all of a sudden, they're like, “hey, I want to check out an e-book or something.” So we're first and foremost making that a much simpler process.

Probably one of the most popular things we offer are e-books and downloadable audio books, but also there are streaming movies. We also are offering online magazines, e-books and audiobooks through the platforms RB Digital, [Overdrive, and Libby]. And we have downloadable local music through HUM which stands for “Hear Utah Music.” And then we have something called Tumblebooks, which are online picture books for kids. So they're animated talking picture books — really super high quality — that caregivers and parents and kids can enjoy together.

CB: Do you think libraries are particularly positioned to respond to a crisis like this? How do you see the role of a library in a pandemic?

PB: The short answer is yes. We are very well positioned to respond to crisis and pandemic, and part of that is local. What libraries I think really do very well is tune into “what is the community need.” So every public library in America is going to be unique. Because day by day, we're not only looking out to the community, but I'm on calls with nonprofit leaders, with city and county officials, looking at where the library can best meet the needs. 

I think right now at this stage [we’re doing that] by providing accurate information. but also live homework help for students who are “tele-studenting” for the first time. And [there are] a whole range of things, whether it's news or it's e-books, audiobooks, learning platforms, that people — while they are self-quarantining — have access to curated and high quality information.

As far as our spaces right now, our libraries are closed. But we've been in conversations with city officials about possible repurposing of spaces as a childcare space for first responders. We have a few hundred thousand square feet of library space available, and if it makes sense at some point to work with city, county or state officials to repurpose that space, we can do that as well. And we always are, I think, the king of partnerships. We know everybody and we can act as a connector. We can also facilitate those partnerships, which are just key in a situation like this.

CB: What are you hearing from library patrons right now?

PB: The most overwhelming thing we're hearing is thank yous. While we've been offering online services like this for 20 years or more, there's still many people who think of the library more traditionally. They'll come in and check things out or they'll use us for a study room, but they might not have been aware or they might have been aware but not using the online services. So as they're learning like “Wow, I can get to I can get to Mango Languages.” For some people this is either the first they're becoming aware of it or the first time they're actually taking advantage of it. 

We're getting a lot of thank yous for that, as well as for a coronavirus FAQ page. They're everywhere, of course, but one of the things that the library has is a great deal of trust in the community. People do look to libraries and librarians for honest, unvarnished, nonpartisan information, and so if you're going to the library's website, you can be assured that the information there has been vetted and is accurate.

CB: Finally, do you have any suggestions for a good book to get lost in right now?

PB: Every person has unique needs in terms of what they like and what they love. I would say that with so much uncertainty right now and with so many things changing around us, I would recommend to think about what is a book that was meaningful to you or a book that you've come back to and reread. Even if it's a children's book. For me, I'm rereading “The Fool of the World and the Flying Ship,” because my mom and dad read that to me when I was a little kid. It's a comfort thing. So what's comfort for you?

CB: I think you've inspired me to pick up Harry Potter for about the 10th time.

PB: I got goosebumps on the back of my neck when you said that. What a fantastic, wonderful choice.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

Caroline is the Assistant News Director
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