Our next guest post in this series is from Craig Hayward, Systems and Digital Services Librarian at NC LBPH.
North Carolina in a time of COVID 19
North Carolina started hearing about what was happening in Washington State, and their library staff, in late February-early March and thanks to the information that the library there provided, we started preparing for how to quarantine items and figuring out how staff could work either from home or in socially distanced situations in the library. The most difficult part of the situation in planning would be with our circulation staff of 5 who most of what they do is handling physical items and have to work in close physical proximity for some parts of their work? Still a plan was set in motion and we prepared to transition to whatever we would be presented. The second week of March, the library closed to the public officially. This also meant the volunteers were not allowed into the building, making some of the work we do, in inspections and audio narration more difficult.
On March 23, 2020, the Governor of North Carolina gave the Stay At Home Order, mandating that all employees were to work from home, or go on administrative leave, if they could not do any work at home. A week prior to that, my own county (Durham) had issued the order which meant that I would have to start working from home sooner. At the time, 5 of us had already begun teleworking, leaving most of our staff of 25 in-house working, while plans were made to bring our work home for real. There was a large backlog with the state in getting laptops so staff could work from home, so a number of staff brought in their own laptops, while waiting frantically for the state to get them something more “official”. All of this was so that KLAS could be installed and work could happen from home. This would mark a new chapter for many of what work looks like now.
Needless to say there was a big shock to the system, both for staff and patrons. No one is there to answer the phone, just reply to voicemail and email. Ironically, the library is getting a new phone voiceover IP phone system, but the shutdown happened at the absolute worst time in this project, since the old system offers no way to forward calls on. The new system will allow you to easily forward your office number to your cell phone. The only time I’ve been back to the library since the shutdown began was this past Tuesday to test out a new piece of hardware to make sure it worked. In the meantime, special arrangements have been made to get the library’s main phone line to ring to another one at the State Library so voicemail could be collected and accessed by our staff.
Without anyone available to run duplication on demand orders on cartridge, that service sits awaiting our return. Our only answer is to get patrons setup on BARD and / or use the local downloading resources we have. To keep chaos at the post office as minimal as we could, we asked patrons to hold onto their materials until we were open again. But patrons can only respond as they do and material piled up in the mailing facility. As a result we then started an occasional truck run to pick up mail hampers. The first run, amazed our driver with the number of hampers sitting and waiting to return materials to the library.
Since our shutdown, only 3 staff members, myself included, have even entered the building at any point for any amount of time. No one is allowed back in until we open. Even once we open, the number of people allowed in the building will be done in phases. Phase 1 allows for a max of 8 people in the building at any given time. Staff will rotate days in and out. At the time of this writing, we are closed to the public and staff until further notice, potentially until the end of May.
Staff working from home pick up voicemail messages from a central voicemail box, setup temporarily by the State Library, and return calls. They also monitor and answer the library’s email box. For anyone answering we ask that they block their phone numbers for privacy. If the patron does not accept blocked calls, we do our best to work to relay information. One option we have looked at for greater transparency is a Google Voice number that would be branded with State of North Carolina to keep it private. But that’s temporary and may take some time. We look forward to the day we get our new voiceover IP phone system to help keep our teleworking experience more normal by allowing our office numbers to connect while out of the library, but our temporary solution has allowed us to continue serving our patrons during a difficult time.
Once a week either the Director of the library or the State Librarian makes a trek to the library and retrieves new patron applications, faxes, and bits of other mail. These items are worked on by our Public Service staff from home.
Our volunteers will return when the public does. Book and magazine production in our local recording studio has been put on hold. However, a couple of us on staff are using home recording as an option (voice recording apps on mobile devices, Audacity on laptops) to produce "Tar Heel Talk", the library’s newsletter. This is a particularly popular publication for our readers. We have also turned to revamping our audio offerings with making "Tar Heel Talk" into a podcast and creating a new podcast that showcases locally recorded books and magazines available for download. With "Notable On NOBLE" we give listeners a bit of the annotation and the first 2-3 minutes of the first chapter of a book or a magazine articles to encourage patrons to try out some more materials and at least offer them something to read. This joins the already popular "Heard Any Good Books Lately?" Podcast and a couple of new offerings are coming soon.
Our machine unit sits and waits to fulfill machine requests, until the library opens again. Machines are received by mail and brought into the library with other items from the post office. All machines have a 7-day quarantine period, so the time away has helped in this regard.
On this topic when we were opened the standard quarantine period for books was 3 days. This will continue once we return and for the foreseeable future. One benefit of the shutdown is that we have decided to ramp up duplication on demand efforts and when we return many individual digital talking books cartridges will be withdrawn from the collection and set aside for recall rather than checking them back in.
Some bright spots have come out of this situation, also. First off, we have the implementation of Live Chat on our library’s homepage. In these times when it’s hard to reach staff directly by telephone and email, this service acts like a kind of instant messaging service to allow staff to help patrons get books and directly answer questions about our service and happenings in real-time. Staff were hesitant that patrons wouldn’t use it, but it has been well received. It also has helped strengthen our collaborative efforts with the State Library by adding our library to this service. They can now more easily direct people that come to their side back to ours, and it allowed us to evaluate the product they use for accessibility. It also has led to some interesting real-time conversation with patrons and their appreciation of having a way to connect.
Most of our staff have been working on the larger NLS Unrated Books project while working at home. This time out of the library has meant having to fill in gaps and this situation is useful.
Another project that this pushed forward was a mass migration of groups of staff-direct, non-automation, service patrons. Having the time out of the library to do this has been a real help. The bulk conversions to duplication service have happened and then the reader advisors (when not answering questions) have been able to go in and tailor first run service queues for a batch of around 1800 patrons new to this type of service. This has made this project more manageable.
This has also been a chance to update parts of our website to better serve our patrons. Things like our local download site, NOBLE, and creating new service spaces with an expanded and better organized podcasts section.
On the topic of local collections, we’ve been able to have time to transfer our collection in totality from our local network attached storage device to books.klas.com for better access by our 3 Scribe units once we go back to open operations. At this writing we have just gotten approval (in record time) for adding a 4th Scribe unit, so that we will can keep up with the demand of daily orders (which average around 300 per day) and keep a walk-in service for patrons, once we are allowed to reopen our building to the public.
It has accelerated the use of communication tools like Microsoft Teams. Prior to this situation no one really saw a need for it, other than our administrative team since they were having meetings and they had been communicating daily. Now everyone in the library uses Teams at various levels. Some of us talk daily through it directly with various people the way we would normally go down to each other’s offices and have conversations. Having my Director call me through Teams the first time was quite a surprise in my house.
Zoom meetings have become a more regular happening, rather than a special occasion. They are just the way we have larger meetings of groups, from the entire staff of the State Library to Departmental meetings within our own building, and for planning events like an upcoming retirement party.
The other avenue that opened up for communication has been a regular Wednesday check-in for groups of staff by text message. This is something that will stay around while we continue to telework and probably beyond as we operate with greatly reduced staffing in the library building itself.
Overall, I can’t say that the situation happened at an ideal time. Conferences got postponed and face-to-face time with staff is missed greatly. But perhaps this situation could be a catalyst for changes to the program that were already starting and maybe for a change in attitude about virtual (non-physical) materials services, like downloading and talking to staff through a website for our patrons.
Every major event that happens and changes us culturally has an impact of how life goes on afterward. Once you get used to this way of working and living, it’s hard to go back to the way you did things prior.