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Nevada Interrupted: For libraries, COVID closures have sped up transition to digital resources

Tabitha Mueller

The Nevada Independent

More than 300 Democratic voters wait in line inside Sparks branch of the Washoe County Library in Sparks, Nev. on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020, the first day of early voting.
Photo: David Calvert / Nevada Independent

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was first published April 10 by The Nevada Independent and is republished here with permission. For more Nevada news, including wall-to-wall coronavirus coverage and a constantly updating live blog, visit The Nevada Independent.

On any given day of the week, libraries are usually bustling with people: kids and their parents attending storytime with librarians, elderly couples seeking help with computer questions and people checking out books.

Since the coronavirus hit, however, libraries in the Washoe County Library System and throughout the state sit dark and empty, having closed their doors to foot traffic to help stop the spread of the virus.

In an attempt to fulfill its role as a safe haven for those looking for resources or a literary escape, the Washoe County Library System has increased its online offerings — something it was doing before COVID-19 affected daily life in Nevada.

“I think what’s interesting about this kind of crisis is that it sort of accelerates things that we’ve already had in the works,” said Jeff Scott, director of the system. “We already were doing a lot more databases, a lot more e-books, a lot more audiobooks.”

One unplanned change for the system was moving previously place-based programming to the internet. Scott said the library has gone from in-person storytimes and arts and crafts activities to virtual storytellings and online library card sign-ups as well as increased digital offerings such as a New York Times subscription and more audiobooks. 

While people with internet access and computers at home are boosting traffic for the library’s online resources, it is a different story for vulnerable populations who only access computers and other services when the library’s doors are open.

“Everything’s just going through the roof as far as usage,” Scott said. “But then it’s hard because we know that many people cannot access our online services.” 

Scott is no stranger to leading libraries during a crisis. When he was the director of library services in Berkeley, California, he kept the library open during a series of protests in the city, offering a safe space for people and in one instance, allowing a branch manager to save the life of a man who might otherwise have died because of a medical emergency.

Now that the libraries cannot remain open, he said he worries about students who rely on the library’s Chromebooks to finish their homework or on the library’s free meal service for food during spring break, but now are stuck at home.

The library has protocols in place for helping displaced families during wildfires or other natural disasters that are part of the county’s emergency operations plan. But those plans include the library as a location for gatherings, which are discouraged during the pandemic.

“[Librarians] are natural problem solvers,” Scott said. “They go out, they look at issues, and then they solve them. And then you’re saying, no, the best thing you can do is nothing, sit at home and just figure out what you can do at home. And that’s really frustrating for librarians.”

In spite of obstacles as a result of the closure, the Washoe County library system still has its internet turned on for those who might need it. People can access the Wi-Fi if they are standing near the physical location.

Scott said librarians are also working on a program to figure out how to loan laptops and perhaps give families Wi-Fit hotspots, as well as offer other resources. Unfortunately, many of these ideas will not be able to be implemented until after the pandemic.

“We have a plan that we’re working on that [we’ll put up] when it’s safe to do so,” Scott said. “There’s all this stuff that we can do … we just can’t gather anywhere, you can’t get anyone together to do all this stuff. It’s just very backward to try to figure out how to serve people when you can’t go out to them.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: NEVADA INTERRUPTED SERIES

“Nevada Interrupted” is an ongoing series of stories launched March 23 by The Nevada Independent that features interviews with businesses and workers about how they are adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic’s realities.

Read more about impacts to Northern Nevada businesses in the Nevada Interrupted series:

• At Reno’s Wild River Grille, survival could hinge on duration of shutdown

• Reno gym owner hopes to keep momentum amid closures

• Reno auto shop adjusts during a time of uncertainty

• Sparks distillery transitions from making hard liquor to hand sanitizer amid shutdown

• Open just four months before pandemic hit, Reno’s Coffee N’ Comics wants to be part of the solution

• Reno therapist shuts doors, moves to remote counseling

• Salon owner hopes for clearer direction from government, compassion from landlord

• Reno brewery channels frustration into generosity for first responders

Budtenders hit the road as cannabis goes delivery-only


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