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For a Community in Crisis, the Library is at the Heart

by Allen McGinley

Teaneck Public Library has not reopened its door to the public since closing on March 13 due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the New York City metropolitan area and northern New Jersey. But that hasn’t stopped our library in New Jersey’s Bergen County from offering critical services to meet the informational, educational, social, and emotional needs of the Teaneck community.

Pivoting to Digital Resources

Following the library’s initial closure in mid-March, we began shifting investment from materials in traditional physical formats, to books and other resources in digital formats, which residents can access remotely with their library card.

Popular services including Libby by Overdrive, Hoopla, Kanopy, RBDigital, and others, allow residents to use an Internet connected computer, tablet, or smartphone to instantly download and stream eBooks, audiobooks, music, magazines, movies, and tv shows. For mobile users, all of the above services offer convenient mobile apps for tablets and smartphones. And much of the content is available immediately, with no waiting periods or holds lists.

For many users this has been a natural transition, while for others this has felt more like a new frontier. To make navigating digital content as easy as possible, we have developed several training videos (pictured) starring Moose, a staff member’s dog, who makes the videos fun and engaging. Our staff has also continued to patiently answer many questions about our digital platforms, walking patrons through the process of downloading and streaming step-by-step.

And the results have been tremendous. As of May 27, Teaneck residents have borrowed more than 14,900 digital items since the library doors closed on March 13.

Supporting Online Learning

In an effort to support the students and families who were suddenly thrust into an online learning environment, staff in the youth services department created a new virtual library landing page.

Developed for students in grades K-12, these curated resources include hands-on learning activities, access to eBooks and audiobooks, authoritative reference sources for homework and research projects, language learning services, online tutoring, documentaries and educational videos, and an ongoing calendar of virtual events.

While residents of all ages have been staying at home due to New Jersey’s stay at home order, that doesn’t mean residents have to stop learning. The library is providing online access to a variety of digital learning platforms including Creativebug, which offers online arts and crafts workshops, and the powerful genealogy tool Ancestry that residents can use to take a peek back into their family’s past.

Programs Go Virtual

Despite being closed to the public, library staff have quickly developed new approaches to hosting programs and events using streaming video platforms like Zoom and Facebook Live. Popular library programs including storytimes (in English and en Español), guided meditation, lego club, teen video game tournaments, morning lectures, author readings, book discussions, read to a dog, and more, are being offered on a weekly basis, and many of these events are available on-demand through the library’s Facebook page and YouTube channel for later viewing.

These online platforms have exposed residents to the library’s high quality programs, many of whom might not normally have had access due to transportation, event space limitations, scheduling, and time constraints. Our virtual platforms have opened a whole world of programming to new library users. In April 2020 alone, the library’s virtual programs were viewed over 4,440 times!

More Online Services

Many residents worried that they wouldn’t be able to renew their library cards or register for new cards during this worldwide pandemic. Teaneck Public Library and the Bergen County Cooperative Library System (BCCLS) responded by automatically extending renewal dates until after the library reopens, and offering online registration for new library cards. New members will receive their library card number by email so they can immediately begin accessing digital services, and they’ll be able to pick up their physical card when the library reopens. Since March 13, library staff have registered 109 new library cards for residents!

With Teaneck Public Library’s reputation for high quality reference services, we knew it would be critical to offer new ways to answer questions during the library’s physical closure. Residents can reach a librarian any time Monday through Friday 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM by calling or texting 201-817-9780. Unlike the library’s standard phone number which goes to an automated system and is routed to different service points within the library, calls to this new number are routed directly to remote staff members who can answer questions from residents as promptly as possible.

Library staff are also available to answer questions by email, and a new live chat service is available through the library’s website (teanecklibrary.org). Any questions that staff receive outside of regular hours are responded to as soon as possible.

Manufacturing PPE

Early in the pandemic, library staff noticed that frontline healthcare workers and first responders had access to only limited supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE). Despite the critical need for healthcare workers to protect themselves against the virus with PPE, problems in the worldwide supply chains have made some of this PPE difficult to come by. Staff also heard complaints from healthcare workers who were wearing protective masks for long periods of time, and developing pressure ulcers behind their ears.

In response, staff used the library’s 3D printer to print relief straps that connect directly to the surgical masks taking the pressure off the wearer’s ears. To date, the library has donated 50 relief straps to Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck, and another 50 to The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood.

Staff also 3D printed and assembled 20 face mask shields (pictured) for the Teaneck Police Department. This was all made possible due to a generous memorial contribution from the family of longtime Teaneck resident and library supporter, Jean Greenfield, which funded the launch of the library’s Mobile Makerspace in January 2020.

Telephones Make a Comeback

Much of the library’s success during this public health crisis has been in utilizing new technology to offer remote versions of traditional services. However, some residents are less comfortable with these newer technologies, To make the library as accessible as possible, we’ve also developed two new services that utilize traditional telephone calls.

The first is our check-in phone call service. Residents can complete a brief online form to request a phone call from a library staff member to check-in and discuss popular new books and movies. The popularity of this service has been an important reminder that despite changes in technology, the daily conversations are what many of our patrons miss the most.

We have also been promoting telephone access to our virtual programs, including Thursday morning lectures. While many patrons attend the virtual programs on the Zoom platform through a computer or smartphone, we’ve also been promoting telephone access. Anyone with a telephone can dial-in to listen to these virtual lectures, on topics ranging from Jewish New York, to the history of the American flag, and cultural touchpoints of the year 1970.

Documenting COVID-19

Teaneck has been a regional epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. As of May 20, the Township of Teaneck had recorded 1,039 presumptive positive cases, and sadly lost the lives of 95 residents. With Holy Name Medical Center located within the Township, the impact of this disease has not only been relegated to those it infected, but also extended to the first responders and frontline healthcare workers tasked with caring for the sick.

Given the unique impact of this virus on our community, the library’s reference department developed Documenting Teaneck History: The COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic in partnership with the Teaneck Historical Society and Age-Friendly Teaneck. The goal of this project is to collect the experiences of Teaneck residents throughout this public health crisis. In the form of narratives, photographs, and videos, these experiences will be archived in physical and digital formats for future educational and historical purposes. This virus has had a devastating impact on Teaneck, and other communities throughout the world, and it is the mission of the library and its partners to make sure this impact is documented for future generations.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus has forced the library to stop lending print books, eliminate public gatherings, and close its doors to residents. However, far from ceasing public services, the library has pivoted to digital resources, virtual programs, 3D printing, and other innovative solutions, while supplementing with low tech approaches that focus on the needs of our patrons.

But what this virus has taught us is that the library isn’t defined by the books, computers, or even the building. What makes our library special are the people, the community we serve, and the heart at its center.

Copyright 2020 by Allen McGinley.

About the Author:

Allen McGinley has served as Director at Teaneck Public Library since 2018. Prior to that, he was the Associate Director at Piscataway Public Library, where he worked for 10 years in a variety of roles. He began his career at the Countee Cullen Branch of The New York Public Library in Manhattan. In 2012, Allen was recognized as one of Library Journal’s Movers & Shakers for his work as a community builder.