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ArlingtonQ&A: Arlington library system seeks to rebuild in COVID era

Q&A: Arlington library system seeks to rebuild in COVID era

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From staffing shortfalls to a long shutdown in the COVID era, the Arlington library system is facing challenges to return to something resembling a semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.

The Sun Gazette recently queried library director Diane Kresh about efforts that have been undertaken, and those on the way, as the process continues.

Based on the library system’s calculations, about 20,000 of the 75,000 pre-pandemic regular patrons of the library system have been inactive over the past year. What are you doing to try and get them back?

During the pandemic we saw seismic shifts in patron usage patterns in libraries. Some users went inactive or moved out of the county, while some shifted to e-books or contactless pickup.

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We heard some people who were very regular readers couldn’t bring themselves to read at all. Conversely, some people turned more deeply to reading.

We observed shifts across the board. It wasn’t specific to one demographic or location.

Usage patterns are continuing to shift. We can’t predict when they will stabilize or how different they will look from pre-pandemic times. Through data, we continue to analyze patron needs and use patterns and look for new opportunities.

This spring we’re planning re-engagement campaigns to connect with inactive users and invite them back to the library ahead of the summer-reading program, which is traditionally a time of high library use across all age groups. This year’s program is again being sponsored by the Washington Nationals and among the prizes are day passes to the new Long Bridge Aquatics Center.

The Library’s Truck is also on the road most weeks, joining community events and signing up new users for library cards.

Finally, all locations are now open. Columbia Pike, Central and Shirlington are open seven days a week. Children’s storytime has been added to Central Library on Sunday, and we are staffing up to add Sunday hours to Westover this fall.

There were concerns raised, including by Friends of the Arlington Library, that it took too long to bring bricks-and-mortar library operations back on track in the COVID era. With the benefit of hindsight, should the library system have acted more expeditiously, and do you think the length of time libraries were out of commission (in one form or another) added to the number of people on that missing-in-action list of 20,000 former patrons?

Bringing us to a point where we could fully satisfy the library’s mission, open all our doors and serve the Arlington public was at the forefront of every decision I made. Few, if any, of those decisions were easy or simple.

Given the county government’s overall approach to health and safety during the pandemic, a lengthy hiring freeze, budget decisions and an overall tight labor market, the library acted as expeditiously as possible.

The library system is seeking a roughly 6-percent increase in funding in the proposed fiscal 2023 budget. Outside of salary increases that are happening county-government-wide, what is the plan for that extra money, and how will it be used to try and gain back patrons and bring in new ones?

For decades, Arlington Public Library has relied on both permanent and temporary employees to staff public-service points. Our historical reliance on temporary employees made it challenging to return quickly to pre-pandemic levels of public service.

In May 2020, the county manager suspended any temporary employees not being actively used in the county. In essence, we lost our entire workforce of temporary employees upon whom we had relied to staff our buildings.
When we were ready to re-engage these temporary employees, most chose not to return. It has been difficult to hire new temporary employees in the current labor market.

In this budget, we’re seeking to convert some of those temporary positions into permanent positions for more public-service staffing stability going forward. This conversion accounts for most of the funding increase and will be a multi-year process.

There is also some one-time money for the collections. Most of this money will go toward buying additional copies of the most requested titles in print and electronic formats. Long wait times are a barrier to library usage and we want to return to our pre-pandemic wait time of 12 weeks.

It must be a balancing act, given a finite budget, to address the interests of those who like libraries as in-person venues while also filling the needs of those who are happy with an expansion of online or community-based options. How does the library system address that, and where do you see that path leading down the road?

We have been engaged in this balancing act since e-books came to market more than a decade ago. The balancing act is even more of a challenge considering how much more expensive e-formats are compared to print.

We regularly monitor demand and interest which prompt both strategic and practical decisions. We want the library experience to be easy and consistent for all users, regardless of how they choose to use our collection. That includes working to reduce wait times, which is contingent on funding. We’re also adding new collections to reach the community where they are. We’re currently negotiating with streaming-video vendors, which we’ve long wanted to bring to Arlington.

We also see innovation and new opportunities with some of our programming. For example, with the Arlington READS author programs we’ve seen a strong audience develop for online programs. Previously, author contracts did not allow for live streaming author talks. This spring, we’ve moved to offering hybrid events allowing for both an in-person audience and livestreaming.

We live in contentious times. How does the library system work to fulfill its mission without becoming a political football in the culture wars?

It is our job to be responsive to the people in Arlington. The library is for everyone, and our collections and programs will reflect a range of viewpoints and interests. Everyone who comes to the library should be able to find a book that educates them, entertains them, or gives them a new perspective. That’s our purpose for being here.

It’s also important for us to remain non-partisan. We adhere to core professional principles outlined in the Library Bill of Rights and are committed to free and open access to information.

Our commitment to First Amendment freedoms and to the dignity of all people is fundamental to all we do, and we do not shirk our responsibilities for fear that others may politicize our actions.

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