From creating a hotspot loan program to hosting digital literacy classes to bringing storytime to Facebook, the pandemic was a busy time for public libraries around the Kansas City metro area, even as their locations stayed closed.
Now, a year after being mostly closed to the public, libraries are finding that patrons want these digital programs to stick around.
Carrie Coogan, deputy director for public affairs and community engagement at the Kansas City Public Library, said libraries have always been on the frontlines of digital access: places where students can do their homework after school, where someone can learn how to use the computer or the internet.
The pandemic exacerbated those needs.
“I think that if you asked any librarian, they would say that they are on the ground floor of digital equity because libraries were the first place to offer public computers and public access to printing and faxing and all kinds of resources that, traditionally, people couldn’t get their hands on,” Coogan said.
For Hope Harms, who works with electronic resources at the Johnson County Library, the pandemic pushed the system to better market its existing digital resources and programs — and it paid off.
“The thing that has made my librarian heart flutter the most is that there are so many resources that we were already offering, that because physical for whatever reason was not in demand during a particular time, nudged our library patrons into a digital space that they may not have been familiar with previously,” Harms said.
With Kansas City, Missouri, libraries fully reopening this week (Johnson County libraries have been open since last summer), patrons can expect these digital services to continue and expand.
“I think that libraries are sort of the great equalizer in many, many ways to connecting people,” Coogan said. “That’s part of the library’s job. But I think it’s a scenario where our library system, in particular, has really stepped up.”
How the Kansas City Public Library responded: hotspots, digital programming and more
Lawless Morgan, 65, was already sitting at one of the computers at the Westport branch of the Kansas City Public Library when it opened at 10 a.m. Wednesday morning — the second day library branches opened to the public in over a year.
He was busy researching his family tree on Ancestry.com — a project he’s been working on since the 1970s.
For Morgan, the public library is a place where he can get online, as he doesn’t have internet at his Westport home. It’s a place where he can continue researching his family lineage.
Before the pandemic, Morgan would frequent the library five days a week. When library branches shut down for most of last year, Morgan still relied on their remote, digital services. He rented out a hotspot so he could download e-books onto his tablet. He sat in the Westport branch’s parking lot to use the building’s Wi-Fi.
And when branches were accessible appointment only, Morgan called in to reserve a computer and continue his work on Ancestry.com.
Morgan’s family tree currently spans back 30 generations — he even found out that he’s related to first U.S. President George Washington. Now that libraries are open, Morgan can receive help from a librarian as he continues his decadeslong project.
“Every time when I find something that I hadn’t found before, I feel happier,” Morgan said. “You feel energized.”
In the months that all 10 locations were closed, staff members turned to digital initiatives like expanding Wi-Fi access to parking lots outside branch locations, increasing the library system’s capacity to loan out computers and Wi-Fi hotspots for free and starting a tech access support program to teach digital skills to people of all ages.
Coogan said the Kansas City Public Library increased its internet-to-go program to offer up to 185 hotspots. But this focus on digital, online solutions during the pandemic presented its own difficulties: How would the library reach the patrons who didn’t have internet at home?
“At a time when we know that we were serving so many people who were disconnected, we had to close our doors,” Coogan said. “And the only thing we really could offer at that point were services that were online, if you knew how to be connected, and you had the ability to be connected, and you were connected.”
So the branches opened their doors last summer in a limited capacity for certain services. To accommodate patrons who did not have internet at home, Coogan said the library offered call-in and walk-up options for people to use a computer or a community room for a Zoom call.
Staff took traditional events like storytime and adapted them. Online storytime was popular with parents, Coogan said, particularly at a time when kids were learning from home.
For parents who did not have adequate internet, the library’s dial-a-story service — where they could call a number to hear a story being read — also grew in popularity during the pandemic.
Coogan said the library also collaborated with local schools and organizations like Connecting for Good, a local nonprofit that offers refurbished computers at a low price to families who need them.
“One of the key things that we tried to do throughout the pandemic was look for ways that we could really meet the community who was suffering from lack of connectivity in any way that we could,” Coogan said.
How the Johnson County Library responded: Ancestry.com and more virtual events
At the Johnson County Library, Harms said she noticed four trending topics emerge among patrons and their digital habits: entertainment, digital learning initiatives, personal finance and professional development, and current events.
Harms said people were checking publications like Consumer Reports more often and had more interest in reading the news. She also noted more public interest in Johnson County history.
In response to this, Harms said the library worked with vendors to expand its digital collections, including adding 500 new e-books as part of its indie author project and increasing its digital magazine options.
Harms said there’s been a 40% increase in magazine checkouts from the indie author collection. And there’s still interest in these digital offerings even though the library has been open since last summer.
“There were some cases where they started shifting some of their budget amounts that would normally go into printing physical purchases and putting them towards digital titles instead,” Harms said of library staff.
According to the Johnson County Public Library’s board report from May, 453 online programs were offered in 2020, with a total attendance of about 64,000.
Joseph Keehn is the program and events coordinator at the Johnson County Library. During the stay-at-home order last spring, Keehn led a team to pivot the library’s in-person events to online. Similar to the Kansas City Public Library, Keehn said the library turned its storytime sessions into a virtual event hosted on Facebook.
“We were able to engage parents that maybe never came to in-person storytimes, because they thought that their child would be too disruptive, or that maybe their child has some learning curves that we would not be able to meet at the library in person,” Keehn said. “But they were able to do that accommodation at home.”
The Johnson County Library also launched Library OnDemand through its website, which offers a variety of digital programs focusing on topics like arts and culture, personal finance and writing classes.
Keehn recognizes the limitations of online programming. He said one positive about Library OnDemand is it allows patrons to watch videos on their own time. The library’s virtual events also included live closed captioning, something that it couldn’t do with in-person events.
The Johnson County Library also negotiated with Ancestry.com to provide remote, online access for patrons. It quickly became one of the library’s most popular services, Harms said.
“It’s getting 3 ½ times more usage,” Harms said of Ancestry.com usage in the past year. “It was already pretty well used before. But that has been something that our community clearly was really interested in leaning into more.”
What the future holds for local libraries
Other public library systems in the Kansas City metro area implemented similar virtual solutions to meet the public’s needs.
The Mid-Continent Public Library developed a Wi-Fi To Go program that loaned out free, portable hotspots to patrons and offered online learning classes. The Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library has an e-community branch to connect people to a range of books, movies, audio, TV shows and databases.
For institutions like the Kansas City Public Library, the ability to expand their digital services was further supported through increased funding from local, state and federal resources.
The state of Missouri and the Department of Economic Development allocated more than $872,000 of its coronavirus relief dollars to public libraries as part of its $50 million initiative to address digital inequity. The Kansas City Public Library received $78,270, and the Mid-Continent Public Library received $82,016. This funding helped both library systems increase the number of devices they can loan to patrons.
For the Kansas City Public Library, the past year has shown how popular digital programs can be. When it comes to digital equity, Coogan knows libraries aren’t going anywhere.
“We’re happy to have so many more partners and support from the community and the federal government to expand on what we’re doing,” Coogan said.
“But we also know that this isn’t going away tomorrow, and that we’re going to be here for a long time until we can help make sure that this is an equitable asset for everyone in our community.”
This story has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.
What you need to know about library hours and the digital programs offered.
Kansas City Public Library
Kansas City Public Library branches are now open to the public. Hours for each branch can be found here. Meeting and study rooms are not available yet. Masks must be worn indoors.
Digital programs are still available. Click on the following links to access the following:
Johnson County Library
Johnson County Library branches are open to the public. Hours of operation can be found here.
Click on the following links to access the following available digital programs: