When 2020 began, staff of Orange County Library System were hard at work making plans for Summer Reading Program, which grows in leaps and bounds every year. They were ready to launch their next round of BizKids, a program funded through a grant from Orange County. They were finalizing details for the 2020 Orlando Book Fair,theiregion’s biggest and best celebration of books and reading. In March, though, all of our plans ground to a halt when it became clear that COVID-19 was not going to be just passing through.The county and state issued stay-at-home orders that shut down all non-essential services, and they closed the doors of all of their locations for six long weeks. 

They never stopped working, though. In fact, their staff kicked into high gear shortly after the pandemic struck, recreating nearly all of their in-person programs to be accessible through online platforms. Working from home, they used smartphones and tablets to record storytimes in their living rooms to be shared on the library’s YouTube and Facebook channels. They livestreamed craft programs and cooking demos in their kitchens so people could participate in library events from home. They increased the number of live online classes the library offered, and their social worker answered emails remotely. Call center staff continued to answer calls from home.

Their Special Services department saw a dramatic uptick in requests to have library materials home delivered, and staff from multiple other departments assisted them in meeting the demand.Their Melrose Center offered audio, fab lab, electronics and coding classes through Zoom and produced on-demand video content about using ProTools and Adobe products. Melrose Center staff also embarked on an initiative to use fab lab equipment to produce face shields, earloop extenders and other PPE for local first responders.

Through a strategic partnership with Orange County Public Schools, their Youth Services department offered storytimes to students through virtual classrooms, delighting teachers and students alike who appreciated a reprieve from the monotony of the online curriculum. During the pandemic, they offered more than 200 storytimes to children in this fashion.

They increased the number of live online software classes offered by their technology trainers, making everything from their QuickBooks to Pro Tools to Microphone Theory classes available in a virtual format. Their BizKids program, an entrepreneurial series for children, was transformed into a multi-week Zoom series featuring breakout sessions for brainstorming, special guest speakers and PowerPoint presentations from participating children. They turned up the volume in their Special Services Department, which runs the Books by MAYL program and saw a huge increase in demand for home-delivery of library materials. Their virtual offerings are vast and thier community has embraced them, showing up for cooking and qigong, singalongs, electronics classes, and book clubs.

In addition to virtual events, their libraries have been providing limited in-person services since May. Their location in the heart of the state’s tourist corridor means that many of their residents are employed by the service economy. When the hospitality and tourism industries halted in March, thousands found themselves out of work and in desperate need of assistance. During the six weeks thier buildings were closed, managers worked together to craft a phased reopening plan that would make it possible for us them to safely provide a limited number of critical services to the people who most desperately needed them.

As an independent taxing district, OCLS did not have county guidance or assistance in accomplishing this – they had to come up with our own strategies and best practices for balancing public service with safety and determine how to allocate funds, staff and other resources to do so. In crafting the plan, they determined how much PPE to have on hand at each location, how to budget for the substantial expense of purchasing it, and how shared surfaces would be cleaned to adhere to CDC guidelines. They assessed staffing levels and determined what thier open hours should be and that only essential services would be offered – people could come inside to select materials, or book up to one hour of computer time per day. Capacity would be limited to 25 percent, and masks would be required of all customers and staff while in the buildings. Call center operators were given equipment to answer phones from home, and a limited work-from-home policy was implemented to allow those who could do their jobs remotely to continue to do so.

While many library buildings across the state and country remained closed, their staff took bold action to reopen as soon as the appropriate safety protocols and equipment were in place.On May 18, five of their branches opened for essential services, followed by nine more on May 26. On June 1, the main library opened as well. Customers have been grateful for their efforts.

Despite the pandemic, which was present during the bulk of their Fiscal Year (October 1, 2019-September 30, 2020), their door count was 1,354,746. They signed up 34,600 people for new library cards, hosted 9,768 library events with attendance of 317,383, circulated 3,395,283 physical materials, delivered 515,354 items through their home-delivery service, and provided social worker assistance to 1,468 individuals. It was a remarkably difficult year, and they learned many things as a result – chief among them, that when things are difficult is when a library’s work becomes most important.

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