Adjusting Service in a Time of Need
“When we finally got the go ahead to reopen the libraries with limited capacity and staff, we had to consider what was the most vital use of our buildings,” Neeyati Shah, librarian at Madison’s Central library, shared recently. “We talked about browsing, about holds, but public computing clearly rose to the surface.”
While the COVID19 crisis has illuminated the need for public computing options, the service has always been one of the core uses of our libraries. In 2019, there were 61,401 public computing appointments at the Central Library alone, with over 227,000 appointments across Madison’s 9-library system.
For the past 5 years, we’ve seen an average of 245,000 appointments a year, that number does not include the number of patrons who use library wifi with their own devices or those who check out library laptops or ipads for use in the building, meaning the actual number of patrons served is much higher. Patrons use the service for everything from playing games online with friends, to applying for jobs, registering for school, filing their taxes or connecting to others over social media.
During the pandemic, other services have been able to pivot remotely - accessing books through contactless curbside pick-up or our digital collection, and routing questions to a centralized reference line - but the need for physical access to computers and internet remained.
“It was really complicated to figure out,” public computing workgroup co-leader and librarian Sean Ottosen told us, “we had to determine what we could do, what we couldn’t do, and how to keep patrons and staff safe.”
Some initial ideas didn’t stick - like setting up tents with wifi in our parking lots. “Public health didn’t want us creating any sort of unregulated situation where large groups of people would gather,” Sean explained. But others, like using ZOHO assist for remote help and screen sharing, have made offering help remotely possible.
“It didn’t really help that things were constantly changing...” Sean laughed, “when we thought we’d gotten everything determined, we’d learn about a new variable, especially in trying to roll out best practices for eight different locations quickly, but we got there.” (Monroe Street Library’s small size means it isn’t safe to use for computer services).
The first two weeks of computer services were piloted at Meadowridge and Hawthorne Libraries, allowing staff to work through any outstanding questions about how to put computer service into practice - like just how long does it take to sanitize each station after use? Now, several months into the roll out of the service, the kinks have been smoothed out and things have fallen into a rhythm.
Patrons can call the central reference line at 608-315-5151 or toll free 888-266-7805 to make an appointment at any of the eight participating libraries. Each location also has capacity for walk ups and some have special areas set aside for families. Pinney and Sequoya Libraries even installed a doorbell to make sure they can catch any walk-up traffic.
We just ask that everyone please remember to wear a mask to keep themselves and our staff safe.
Walk-Up Appointments Accommodate Needs
“We had a patron come to the doorbell, really frazzled to ask if they could have access to a printer quickly,” Librarian Jaime Vaché at Pinney Library told us. “They had asked everyone they knew, but couldn’t find anyone who would be able to let them into their home to use one. They confided in the librarian that they have been working to get custody of their child for over a year and they just found out TODAY that submitting a printout was the very last step they needed to make it real for their family to be united.”
“A lot of our appointments are walk-ups and I’m so glad we figured out how to accommodate that need,” said Amy Sabo, Library Assistant from Hawthorne Library. “From an equity standpoint, calling to make an appointment can be a barrier. We’re trying to make access easy for everyone.”
Each participating library can also host patrons with children or other family needs in one of the study rooms. “We have one mother with an adult son with a disability who has been coming in twice a week to use our family computer room,” library assistant Christa Parmentier said. “She is a new regular at Goodman South Madison Library and I am so glad we have been able to offer them this consistent service.”
A Critical Service to Many
Goodman South Madison had 348 appointments in October, making it the second most popular library after Central (751 appts in October).
“I take a LOT of pride that Goodman South Madison Library is able to support so many people,” Christa shared. “It is abundantly clear that this is a service that people need right now. So much of the use that we are getting are people coming in to do a job search, filing unemployment or housing applications and doing paperwork for the eviction moratorium.”
“There is also a lot of need for printing, scanning, and faxing - a lot of government agencies require physical paperwork, and those services just aren’t available for free anywhere else,” Amy explained.
Patrons are able to print 25 pages for free each day, mostly it is much less than that, but they are incredibly grateful for the access and assistance. Oftentimes, people come in, take care of essential needs and head on out, minimizing their time in a public space, but the librarians are still there to offer more help when needed.
“A young man came in because he had gotten a new job and needed his social security card so he could finish his paperwork. He had called the social security office, and they sent him to the library,” Christa explained. “I was able to help him find the form, fill it out (standing 6 feet away), make sure everything was correct and then mail it in. But he had never put something in the mail! So we also covered ‘this is an envelope, here is a stamp, this is how you put it in the mail to get it taken care of.’”
Having access to both a computer AND a librarian can be essential when information is unclear. “We had a patron who was unhoused, but had the resources to purchase a motor home. She needed help navigating the Department of Transportation website to get it registered. She was having trouble navigating the forms, but so did I!” Christa laughed. “I had to call the DMV because I couldn’t figure it out! The guy on the phone at the DOT was like, ‘Wow! You work at the library, and you’re calling us to help someone? Thank you!’”
But there are other things that are also “essential” these days.
“People are using computers for some things you might take for granted like checking your email, or using social media,” Neeyati said. “When we were putting together the computer service plan, we wondered if we should screen appointments for what is the most necessary. But who are we to tell anyone what is necessary? Some people need to watch something funny on Youtube and just escape. The other day, someone asked me if I could help them post something on a friend’s wall. They missed them and wanted to connect.” That feels pretty essential.
“I feel so strongly right now that with everything going on in the world, humanity, meeting people where they are at, being kind, and showing people respect is essential,” Christa effused. “We are essential workers in that respect, and this is an essential service.”