Q&A: Arlington Library System Seeks to Rebuild in Age of COVID

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From understaffing to a long shutdown in the COVID era, Arlington’s library system faces challenges getting back to something resembling some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.

The Sun Gazette recently interviewed library director Diane Kresh about the efforts that have been undertaken and those that are underway as the process continues.

BAccording to the library system’s calculations, about 20,000 of the library system’s 75,000 regular customers before the pandemic have been inactive over the past year. What are you doing to try to get them back?

During the pandemic, we have seen seismic shifts in patron usage patterns in libraries. Some users have gone inactive or left the county, while others have switched to e-books or contactless pickup.

We heard that some people who were very regular readers couldn’t bring themselves to read at all. Conversely, some people turned more deeply to reading.

We have observed changes at all levels. It wasn’t specific to any demographic or location.

Usage patterns continue to change. We cannot predict when they will stabilize or how different they will be from the pre-pandemic period. Using data, we continue to analyze customer needs and use patterns and seek new opportunities.

This spring, we are planning re-engagement campaigns to reach out to inactive users and invite them to come back to the library ahead of the summer reading schedule, which is traditionally a time of high library usage across all library groups. ‘age. This year’s program is once again sponsored by the Washington Nationals and among the prizes are day passes to the new Long Bridge Aquatics Center.

The library truck is also on the road most weeks, joining community events and signing up new users for library cards.

Finally, all locations are now open. Columbia Pike, Central and Shirlington are open seven days a week. Children’s story time has been added to the Central Library on Sundays, and we are in the process of recruiting staff to add Sunday hours in Westover this fall.

Concerns have been raised, including by Friends of the Arlington Library, that it has taken too long to get brick-and-mortar library operations back on track in the COVID era. In hindsight, should the library system have acted faster, and do you think the length of time the libraries were out of service (in one form or another) added to the number of people on that missing list 20,000 former patrons?

Getting us to a point where we could fully fulfill the library’s mission, open all of our doors, and serve the Arlington public was at the forefront of every decision I made. Few, if any, of these decisions were easy or straightforward.

Given the county government’s comprehensive approach to health and safety during the pandemic, a long hiring freeze, budget decisions and an overall tight labor market, the library acted as quickly as possible. possible.

The library system is asking for an approximately 6% increase in funding in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2023. Outside of salary increases that are happening countywide, what is the plan for that extra money and how? will it be used to try to recover customers and attract new ones?

For decades, the Arlington Public Library has relied on permanent and temporary employees to staff public service outlets. Our historical reliance on temporary employees has made it difficult to quickly return to pre-pandemic levels of public service.

In May 2020, the county executive suspended all temporary employees who were not actively employed in the county. Essentially, we lost all of our temporary workforce that we relied on to staff our buildings.
When we were ready to rehire these temporary employees, most chose not to return. It has been difficult to hire new temporary employees in the current job market.

In this budget, we seek to convert some of these temporary positions into permanent positions for greater stability in public service staffing in the future. This conversion represents the bulk of the funding increase and will be a multi-year process.

There is also one-time money for collections. Most of this money will be used to purchase additional copies of the most popular titles in print and electronic format. Long wait times are a barrier to using the library and we want to get back to our pre-pandemic wait time of 12 weeks.

It must be a balancing act, given a limited budget, to meet the interests of those who love libraries as in-person places while meeting the needs of those who are satisfied with a expansion of online or community options. How does the library system approach this, and where do you see this path leading down the road?

We’ve been engaged in this balancing act since e-books hit the market over a decade ago. The balance is even more difficult given the much higher cost of electronic formats compared to print.

We regularly monitor demand and interest that drive both strategic and practical decisions. We want the library experience to be simple and consistent for all users, however they choose to use our collection. This includes reducing wait times, which is dependent on funding. We’re also adding new collections to reach the community where they are. We are currently negotiating with streaming video providers, which we have long wanted to bring to Arlington.

We also see innovation and new opportunities with some of our programs. For example, with the Arlington READS author programs, we have seen a strong following grow for online programs. Previously, author contracts did not allow live author discussions. This spring, we have decided to offer hybrid events allowing both an in-person audience and a live broadcast.

We live in a time of conflict. How does the library system work to fulfill its mission without becoming a political balloon in the culture wars?

It’s our job to listen to the people of Arlington. The library is for everyone, and our collections and programs will reflect a range of views and interests. Everyone who comes to the library should be able to find a book that educates them, entertains them, or gives them a new perspective. This is our reason for being here.

It is also important for us to remain non-partisan. We adhere to the core professional principles set out in the Library Bill of Rights and are committed to ensuring free and open access to information.

Our commitment to First Amendment freedoms and the dignity of all is fundamental to everything we do, and we do not shy away from our responsibilities lest others politicize our actions.

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