More than books: How Chester County’s libraries pivoted to become a pandemic ‘lifeline’

Chester County’s libraries closed for about a third of 2020, but librarians say they were busy as ever — lending out everything from books to seeds to information.

Two women, wearing face masks, sit behind a desk at Avon Grove Library.

Avon Grove Library opened up to the public — with face masks, hand sanitizer, and physical distancing — in mid-July. (Avon Grove Library/Facebook)

On paper, people paid a million fewer visits to the Chester County Library system in 2020. The 60% drop is not a surprise to those working in the county’s 18 libraries, given ongoing coronavirus mitigation efforts, but they say those numbers only tell part of the story of the past year.

Megan Walters, director of the Kennett Library, said people came in droves almost as soon as a two-week closure was announced mid-March.

“We were basically second on the list for people’s priorities,” Walters remembers. “They went to the grocery store and then they came to the library to stock up on books.”

Walters was surprised to see the shelves at the Kennett Square branch practically empty, and she suspects had people known that two-week closure would turn into about three months, the lines for books would have been longer.

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Almost immediately, Walters said the library system poured money into e-books, e-magazines, and audiobooks. One library gave away free books and CDs at the start of the shutdowns. The Kennett Library gave out seeds to plant for people looking for something to do at home.

At the same time, branches went all-in on virtual programming, using Facebook Live and Zoom to host virtual baking and knitting classes, tax prep seminars, Medicare Q&As, trivia nights, and storytime for children.

Lori Schwabenbauer, director of Avon Grove Library, said the move to digital platforms required quick training. The programming only improved as the facility received donations of software and semi-professional camera and light setups.

“The Facebook Live and so forth has definitely been around for a while … but I haven’t been taking advantage of it, our library hadn’t been,” she said. “But when we’re pressed to do it and we have to do it, that’s what you end up doing.”

‘We know where to point people’

The county’s system has 16 libraries and two branches that share electronic books. While the directors work closely with one another, each library operates independently.

Avon Grove serves eight municipalities with a population of about 33,000 people. Of those, Schwabenbauer said 8,000 have library cards. While it’s hard to quantify just how many new residents have been introduced to the Avon Grove Library through virtual programs, Schwabenbauer said it’s enough to continue hosting these events.

“We’re now drawing people from outside our normal area because it’s so convenient to just log in virtually to enjoy the storytimes with the children and for the young children who are, you know, preschool age, they love being able to have their own Zoom classroom, just like their older brothers and sisters,” said Schwabenbauer.

Librarians offered concierge services for readers, creating book bundles tailored to the individuals’ tastes. This service has been wildly popular with parents who want to keep their children interested in reading, according to librarians.

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Still, not all of the library’s services have been easy to change or move online. One of the system’s most popular offerings is internet access itself, by way of their computer centers.

The exterior of Kennett Library. surrounded by snow
Kennett Library is pictured on a snowy day in December 2020. (Kennet Library/Facebook)

Kennett Square partnered with a local nonprofit to loan its hotspots to children learning virtually and with poor internet connection.

Monique Kolb, the PR and graphics specialist at the Chester County Library, said her location closed general seating in December after winter holidays led to a spike in new coronavirus cases, but computer services were made available at limited capacity.

“If they’ve lost their job and they don’t have internet access or they need to update their resume, we’re the second stop that they’re calling,” said Kolb.

The libraries have become trusted sources for families to get the latest information about the coronavirus and through continued partnerships with local nonprofits, libraries remained hubs for winter farmers markets and coat giveaways.

“We are definitely books, they’re one of our kind of keynote things,” said Kennett Square Library’s Collection Development Coordinator Laura Florence. “But we are like a really critical resource for the community … They come to us and ask us, ‘How can I find some social resources?’ And that’s not our role, but we know where to point people.”

The future of ‘a lifeline’

As COVID-19 vaccinations continue across the state, directors and board members are thinking about what roles libraries will play in communities in the near future and post-pandemic.

Some libraries have continued curbside pickup of books, a service Chesco locations introduced during the pandemic, while others are allowing limited browsing.

Chester County Library and District Center, one of the county’s larger facilities, is reopening general seating, at limited capacity, for two hours at a time starting Monday, March 1.

The general consensus at Avon Grover, Chester County Library and District Center, and Kennett Square is that virtual events will remain in some form.

The Children's Room at Chester County Library
The Children’s Room is pictured at Chester County Library. (Chester County Library/Facebook)

At Avon Grove, conversations about the future try to reconcile the idea that patrons have been forced to adapt to new technology just as much as libraries have. DVDs and CDs have seen a dip in checkouts in recent years, said Schwabenbauer. Now that patrons know about audiobooks and can rent Rokus at some branches, Avon Grove is weighing if the physical space for CDs and DVDs could be better used for more books or something else.

Kennett Square is planning for a scenario where the library can host at least some in-person events at the local park this summer.

However the Chesco libraries return, said Kolb, one thing is certain.

“For a lot of people, the library is a lifeline,” she said.

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