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Nevada librarians navigate a cautious reopening, eye budget cuts on the horizon

Tabitha Mueller

The Nevada Independent

A horse-drawn carriage approaches a book return location that is part of the Washoe County Library System.
Courtesy Photo: Washoe County Library System
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was first published June 30 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. 

When Rebecca Colbert had the choice to attend law school or pursue a career as a librarian, a mentor told her that she could succeed in either field, but would have a more significant effect on others’ lives as a librarian.

At that time, Colbert was working at the UNLV law library and said her mentor’s observation made her choice simple. 

“I’m so glad I listened to it. Because it’s part intellectual, it’s part social work, quite honestly, working in a library these days,” said Colbert, who now manages the Las Vegas-Clark County Library System’s department of collections and bibliographic services. “We’re so anchored in public service in our library district that everything you do feels like a deliberate [act] to help somebody that comes into the library.”

Whether someone arrives at the library looking for entertainment, help writing a resume or food through the library’s meal program, Colbert said librarians are used to navigating complex situations and wearing many hats as they help patrons.

The pandemic forced libraries across the state to temporarily close in-person services and Colbert, along with other librarians across Nevada and the country, had to adjust to remote work environments, digital-only services, and now a phased reopening without clear guidelines. 

In Las Vegas, the library system increased digital offerings, including Ancestry.com and Rosetta Stone subscriptions patrons could access at home, but Colbert worries about homeless youth who came to the library to take part in programming and people who relied on the library services. 

Usage of the library system’s homework help database went down from February to March, in line with school closures, Colbert said, but e-media usage increased. She half-jokingly added that students might be driving e-media usage now that they are no longer needing the library’s homework help database.

Colbert’s calculations show that digital magazine usage increased by 108 percent, e-book usage went up 20 percent, audiobook use increased to 249 percent, and movies and TV use went up 552 percent.

A librarian with the Washoe County Library System leans out a book drop off window.
Courtesy Photo: Washoe County Library System

As for what people were checking out? Colbert said that as of the end of April, the books patrons were reading mainly fell into the self-help, gratitude, and fiction categories. 

“The number one title for e-books on one of our platforms is called ‘Unfu*k Yourself.’ And I know this title because a therapist once recommended it to me, and I died laughing when I saw that at the top of the chart,” Colbert said with a laugh. “And I thought, well, this shows some self-awareness. People realize that we’re in a weird situation, and it’s a little bit stressful, and they want to get through it. And it’s good that they’re coming to the library to do that.”

Cautiously reopening

Since moving into phases one and two of reopening, the library system in Vegas put a curbside pickup and book drop-off service in place and reinstated regular library hours at 24 of the 25 branches. 

Reopening guidelines for the library follow social distancing protocols but also allow patrons to come in and use WiFi and computers. To encourage patrons to check out books and stop by, the library is also offering collectible bookmarks that feature hockey players from the Vegas Golden Knights and free art gallery displays at branches around the valley. 

Coronavirus closures also sped up the transition to digital services in the Washoe County Library System, including moving in-person story readings online. However, Jeff Scott, director of the system, said reopening brings a new set of challenges and frequent changes.

“It’s tough because, like every organization in the state, we’re kind of all on our own, so we have to kind of figure out, what can we do safely?” Scott said.

So far, the Washoe County Library offers limited grab-and-go and drive-up services at individual libraries and is waiting until cases decrease to open libraries further.

As part of social distancing requirements, Scott said every patron is required to wear a facial covering. If someone forgets, the library system has bandanas they can take. Whenever someone argues about the policy, the librarians request that the anti-masker leave or potentially ban the client from using library services for an extended period.

“We’re always on the edge of if something happens and something spikes to shut everything back down, and that’s kind of why we really wanted to emphasize the virtual services,” Scott said.

Scott’s priority is to ensure the libraries are a safe environment for the public and his staff. The library uses the same incident reporting system as the casinos, and he wants everyone to take the library distancing guidelines seriously.

Along with navigating reopening, libraries are also facing financial uncertainties.

“We’re all worried about budget cuts because we know in the state of Nevada, things are going to be difficult long after we’ve reopened,” Colbert said. “A part of our budget comes from the consolidated tax money, and there’s going to be less of that to go around.”

The consolidated tax consists of revenue combined from six taxes, including levies on cigarettes, liquor, real estate transactions and vehicle registrations.

During economic downturns, libraries tend to see increased usage but decreased funding. Potential budget cuts might mean putting library renovation plans on hold but not cutting essential programs for teens or other library users, Colbert said, emphasizing that library systems are there to serve the community.

“Part of my job is circulation, and right now, I’m not concerned about circulation. I’m concerned about the health and well-being of our regulars,” Colbert said. “We’re here to help. We want two-way communication. Tell us what you need … our whole goal is to get through it together.”