If you think families abandoned Arlington’s public schools in droves during the pandemic, that dropoff was nothing compared to the abandonment of the Arlington library system.
Having permitted the system shut down for what critics called an egregious amount of time, county leaders are now trying to win back the loyalty of former patrons.
In a budget presentation with County Board members, longtime library director Diane Kresh acknowledged that the 75,000 users of her system in the days before COVID had dwindled to 55,000 today. (She didn’t do the math for board members, but it represents a drop of roughly 26.5 percent.)
“We want those people back. We’ve got to bring them back,” said Kresh, on hand to push for a library-system budget increase of 6 percent to $15.9 million and a staffing increase to about 140 full-time-equivalent positions from 131.
Like many of the department heads appearing before County Board members, Kresh bemoaned the inability to recruit staff. As of the hearing date, the department was down four branch managers, among other personnel.
County Board members neither asked for, nor received, information from library officials as to the perceived causes of, or responses to, the dropoff in patronage. Kresh, however, said she was hopeful the community would return to an embrace of its libraries. “Arlington is a curious and passionate community,” she said.
Those using the library system are finding that, for popular materials, wait times seem as long as the line for a popular ride at Walt Disney World.
Owning up to the problem, Kresh detailed as an example the case of the novel “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles, which as of the date of the budget confab had a wait time among Arlington patrons of 19 weeks to obtain a print edition, 36 weeks for an e-audiobook and 43 weeks for an e-book version.
That is “too long,” she said. “We can do better. The wait times are critical. Twelve weeks is great, 10 weeks is better, eight weeks best of all.”
Like most of the county government, libraries shut down in mid-March 2020. Even as library systems around the country (and, ultimately, around the region) reopened, Arlington’s stayed locked tight, eventually allowing patrons to order books online and pick them up, after standing in what to some seemed akin to a Soviet Union bread line, at Central Library.
County officials first blamed the lengthy lockdown on the pandemic, then switched explanations midstream to say it was a lack of staffing that was holding things back.
It wasn’t until the middle of 2021 that the first libraries started reopening, and not until the start of 2022 that library operations began to fully take on a semblance of their pre-COVID self.
Prior to the pandemic, the library relied on an extensive number of temporary staff, many of whom have departed for good. Some within the permanent ranks retired departed for greener pastures.
County officials have now embarked on a multi-year effort to right-size the library workforce and focus on hiring and retaining permanent employees.
“This is full-time, professional work,” said Kresh, who has headed the library system since 2006.