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Reading: Serving Our Communities: Virginia Libraries Respond to COVID-19


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Serving Our Communities: Virginia Libraries Respond to COVID-19


Barbara Ferrara ,

Chesterfield County Public Library, Chesterfield, Virginia, US
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Susan La Paro,

The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia, US
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Billette Ripy,

Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, Virginia, US
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Jeffrey Kozak,

Preston Library, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia, US
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Heather Groves Hannan,

Preston Library, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia, US
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Elizabeth A. Kocevar-Weidinger,

Preston Library, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia, US
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Kaitlyn Hodges,

Bayside Area & Special Services Library, Virginia Beach Public Library, Virginia Beach, Virginia, US
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Jonathan Bradley,

University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, US
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Kayla B. McNabb,

University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, US
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Alice Rogers,

University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia, US
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Sonia Alcántara-Antoine,

Newport News Public Library, Newport News, Virginia, US
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Will Yarbrough,

Chesapeake Public Library, Chesapeake, Virginia, US
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Dana Bomba,

Chesterfield County Public Library, Chesterfield, Virginia, US
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Stephen Hudson

Chesterfield County Public Library, Chesterfield, Virginia, US
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The need to support learning and provide equal access to information does not stop when a health emergency arises. It becomes even more important, and as such, libraries of all types in the Commonwealth quickly responded to 2020’s emerging crisis by enhancing existing services and creating innovative new services, proving that once again, library staff are vital participants in providing for the well-being of patrons. This column explores how library workers and libraries in Virginia quickly adapted to restrictions imposed as the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread.

How to Cite: Ferrara, B., La Paro, S., Ripy, B., Kozak, J., Hannan, H.G., Kocevar-Weidinger, E.A., Hodges, K., Bradley, J., McNabb, K.B., Rogers, A., Alcántara-Antoine, S., Yarbrough, W., Bomba, D. and Hudson, S., 2021. Serving Our Communities: Virginia Libraries Respond to COVID-19. Virginia Libraries, 65(1), p.2. DOI:
  Published on 04 May 2021
 Accepted on 29 Jan 2021            Submitted on 21 Dec 2020


Beginning with Governor Northam’s Executive Order 51 on March 12, 2020 declaring a state of emergency due to the emergence of COVID-19 viral infections in Virginia, libraries throughout the Commonwealth have been responding quickly to public, staff, and institutional concerns and expectations. Libraries turned to the American Library Association, the Urban Library Council, and the Library of Virginia, to name only a few, along with the Center for Disease Control and the Virginia Department of Health, for authoritative information about staff safety, disinfecting materials, best practices, copyrights for books used in story times, and a myriad of other concerns.

We asked Virginia librarians to tell us their stories. The seven vignettes here represent seven different responses. There are likely to be five hundred more unique stories, and we would love to hear them. What we have learned already is that librarians are responsive to the needs and expectations of their communities and governing bodies and that librarians can move quickly to do so. We are demonstrating our value so blatantly that we are being noticed. We are changing to meet new needs and some of these changes will continue far beyond the current crisis.


Sometimes, planning ahead is richly rewarded and allows for proactivity rather than reactivity. Such was the case with Mary Riley Styles Public Library in Falls Church. By focusing on and studying change in anticipation of an expansion and renovation project, the library staff was prepared for the changes wrought by COVID-19. Similarly, also based on a renovation, the staff at the Preston Library at Virginia Military Institute used their disaster plan and its recent updates to respond to COVID-19 and its effect on the library’s operations.

Preparing for the Unexpected: The Benefits of Change Management Training for Library Staff

Billette Ripy, Circulation Supervisor, Mary Riley Styles Public Library, Falls Church, Virginia

On February 10, 2020, our library received final approval for our expansion and renovation project. A week later, we closed our building to move into our temporary location for the duration of the project. The move out of our building for construction was the result of many years and months of hard work and was completed in a few short weeks (Figure 1). We reopened in our temporary facility on March 9, 2020, ready to serve the public and feeling as though the worst was behind us. On March 16, we closed the library due to COVID-19, one week after reopening. While the pandemic has been a tragedy on too many levels to count, in some ways, the timing of these two events has been fortuitous for our library.

Figure 1 

MRSPL staff Laura Miller (Left) and Christina Parnther (Right) prepare the children’s room for opening in the temporary facility before the pandemic forced the library to close. Photo: Billette Ripy.

The preparation, training, and time we took as a staff to communicate about upcoming change, change management, and the acceptance of unexpected challenges has been just as applicable in adaptation to the COVID-19 crisis as it was to our library move. This experience reinforced the importance of change management training for staff and change leadership training for management on a regular basis, because while the most trying and difficult situations can’t be predicted, staff can still be prepared.

Our experience in change management planning for our library move and expansion project can be broken down into three main efforts:

  • United leadership at the managerial level
  • Change awareness and change management training for all staff
  • Thorough communication with staff

While all three phases were equally important in creating a sense of stability during tumultuous times, change management always starts at the top.

A year-and-a-half before we actually moved, our Library Director, Jenny Carroll, organized and led a book discussion for department supervisors and administrators on John Kotter’s Leading Change. This book outlines the process and challenges of fostering long lasting change, and while all eight listed steps to effective change leadership are essential, I found two to be especially applicable: a united front and communication. When leadership and management are united, and when they communicate efficiently and consistently with staff, change is easier and adaptation to it becomes an expected part of all of our jobs.

We followed this with an all-staff meeting devoted to change management led by Nan Carmack from the Library of Virginia. In this environment, staff were able to openly identify as change-wary or change-driven and were encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings. Respectfully acknowledging that we are all comfortable with different levels of change, while simultaneously coming together to share this experience as a group, was helpful to all. This group meeting also helped solidify the inevitability of the coming change while extending a hand in support to staff that still felt uneasy.

The final and perhaps most time-consuming piece of this process was consistent and regular communication between management and staff, especially individual conversations. While supervisors spoke regularly with their departments about the changes to come, they also spoke one-on-one with staff, which helped management understand exactly where each individual stood. While change was inevitable, this gave staff a platform to express themselves, as well as supervisors a chance to listen and address issues before they became problems.

During the entirety of our change management training and preparation, these three strategies and elements were entirely focused on the change we expected leading up to, during, and after our new building project was complete. But, when we first closed the library due to the COVID-19 crisis, staff were forced to adjust to a variety of new and entirely unexpected challenges that required flexibility and an acceptance of unpredictability. What we have found is that while change management preparations are often focused around specific events, they also help reinforce, support, and foster a dynamic and adaptable staff.

Our leadership and change management training prepared staff to be ready for the unexpected, to be ready to face challenges we hadn’t anticipated and problems for which no one was prepared. While the process has been difficult, our staff has handled these unexpected changes to our service and programming models gracefully. And, at the end of the day, we are left with a lesson that stands the test of renovations and COVID-19. Much like the old adage that, “Librarians don’t know everything, just how to find out everything,” a similar verse holds true for change management: While we can’t be prepared for everything, we can be prepared to be prepared for anything.

“As if COVID-19 Wasn’t Enough…”

Jeffrey Kozak, Head of Archives and Records Management; Heather Groves Hannan, Assistant Director and Head of User Services; Elizabeth Kocevar-Weidinger, Head of Research and Instruction Services, Preston Library, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Virginia

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” ~ Dwight Eisenhower

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” ~ Mike Tyson

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” ~ Sun Tzu

Most, if not all, libraries have a disaster plan designed to reduce risk and minimize loss. In times of crisis, the detailed procedures found in disaster plans aid library staff in determining how to move forward, or at least keeping the library train from flying off the tracks. The staff of Preston Library at the Virginia Military Institute reviews and updates its disaster plan annually and as situations require. Over the past two years, the activities of Preston Library’s floor-by-floor renovation, including occasional fire alarms, water incursions, and odd vapor smells, resulted in frequent updates to the disaster plan. These updates ensured that we could switch tracks quickly and appropriately at these unfamiliar crossings.

When creating or updating disaster plans, it is critical to identify the most common disasters for the entire library or for a particular project. Prior to the renovation, we incorporated the four facets of the emergency management cycle—prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery—into the disaster plan’s update. We conducted risk assessments, strategized response readiness and assembled resources for recovery actions. In our estimation, disasters would occur one at a time. We naively presumed that we couldn’t have another disaster, i.e. the COVID-19 pandemic, while dealing with a renovation!

Since the renovation began, the library director, in conjunction with the department heads, believed that the best way to keep the library train running on time was to build a strong, communicative, and trusting team. Do you have that in your disaster plan? As the renovation progressed, we frequently adjusted our efforts to provide much-needed services and study spaces to cadets and continue departmental workflows. We made a commitment to meet weekly, drop everything to make urgent decisions, respond promptly to renovation email conversations, and add humor when needed. Our team valued the skill sets that each of us brought to the project. We participated in renovation status updates, debates and deliberations about how to provide services during our renovation and design decisions for our new library spaces.

In March 2020, the library was busy, but it was more or less business as usual when the cadets left Post for a well-deserved Spring Furlough. On March 17, the wheels came off the caboose when VMI announced that it was moving classes online due to COVID-19 and that staff would work remotely. Now we had to manage our renovation remotely.

Our in-person renovation experience was a silver lining to the sudden change in our library operations. We were familiar with responding to uncertainty, adapting to resolve urgent issues, and we had established a strong communication network. Our productive and trusting communication practices with each other and the construction managers enabled us to maintain seamless communication after our departure. We continued to offer library services, coordinate movement of collections and furniture, and prevent damage to the collection, technology and the facility. Throughout March and April, our library’s communication practice was the fuel that kept the locomotive chugging along smoothly.

As the fall semester approached, we had to switch tracks to prepare for the library director’s retirement and subsequently, a new team management structure, as well as reopen the library. Now, we were managing three disasters: renovation, COVID-19, and no library director! Would the train finally careen off the tracks? No, because we had established our library’s communication channels. Our team was well-versed in civil debate and reaching consensus on difficult decisions. We were prepared for the fall semester train ride!

Dealing with frequent renovation disruptions reinforced the importance of including protocols for service continuity in the library’s disaster plan. Prior to our renovation, we did not fully address service provision and internal communication in our plan. Any disaster, from a small renovation mishap to a pandemic, requires library staff to transform its service model; therefore, it is vital to include service provision alternatives in a disaster plan. In our case, the need to create service procedures during the renovation unintentionally prepared us to expand our services in response to the larger scale of the pandemic.

As this article goes to press, our library’s renovation is nearing completion (Figure 2) and the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing. Based on these two disasters, we know that it’s possible for a library’s situation to change dramatically at a moment’s notice. We don’t know when the next disaster will strike or what it will be. However, we do know that we need strong communication skills and a disaster plan that addresses safety, collections, spaces, and services. We want to keep our train moving to provide our users with the library services and resources they need during times of duress.

Figure 2 

The newly renovated learning commons on the main floor of VMI’s Preston Library, August 2020. Photo: Mary Price.

Changes in Services

A disaster, such as a pandemic, necessitates pivots in services in libraries. Virginia Beach Public Library’s Bayside Area and Special Services Library never had a break in service, but they did have some adjustments to their offerings to patrons with print disabilities. The University Libraries at Virginia Tech converted media design studios to spaces for remote teaching in response to COVID-19 changes in instruction. Newport News Public Library increased its efforts with internet access for residents in order to provide services and Wi-Fi. These pivots allowed the libraries and their staffs to remain connected to their patron bases in altered capacities.

Passion Through the Pandemic: Committed to our Customers with Print Disabilities

Kaitlyn Hodges, Disability Services Librarian, Bayside Area & Special Services Library, Virginia Beach Public Library, Virginia Beach, Virginia

Unlike most talking book libraries throughout the country, Virginia Beach Public Library’s Bayside Area and Special Services Library never had a break in service, even when the branch was physically closed to the public. As a subregional library for the National Library Service for the Blind and Print Disabled (NLS), we continued to see the needs of our Bayside area customers with print disabilities. With only a few modifications, we continued to circulate digital books, increased communication with our customers, and provided programming opportunities since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic.

For circulation, the main modification we made was sanitizing and quarantining the digital books and their cases upon entry to our branch. Originally for seven days, the quarantine is now three days due to information provided by the REALM project along with our strict cleaning protocols (Figure 3). Aware of the severity of isolation suffered by people with disabilities and the importance of having connections to the outside world during this unprecedented time, we arranged for staff to fulfill digital talking book and playback equipment orders six days a week. Due to these efforts, circulation increased 156% compared to the previous year.

Figure 3 

Branch Supervisor Caroline Grubbs disinfects talking books at Virginia Beach Public Library. Photo: Amy Benabou.

In addition to continued daily service we intentionally increased communication with our customers early in the pandemic. Staff working from home monitored the voicemail traffic and ensured customer requests and concerns received attention, requiring daily coordination with the few staff working onsite. Gradually, we started rotating in-office staff schedules until all staff were working in the building but staying socially distant. We have also been providing technology assistance to customers over the phone, instead of the typical in-person tech appointments. Finally, we have increased communication with customers by sending out a weekly email. We provide updates on Special Services operations, reading recommendations, and accessible virtual experiences and training.

Accompanying the other changes, we are providing an expanded catalog of accessible virtual programs with a phone-in option. These include the now weekly Read and Share Book Club and the monthly Seeing Beyond program. Previously a monthly in-person program, the Read and Share Book Club transitioned to a weekly meet-up within the first month of the pandemic, allowing customers to discuss their latest reads along with how they are faring during this difficult time in a virtual group setting. This has allowed it to become much more than a book club to participants, connecting them to their peers and community at large. Because of its success and increased participation, the library will continue to host the weekly program for the foreseeable future. For the monthly virtual Seeing Beyond program, we sought out new and diverse presenters. Most notable of these programs was June’s “Juneteenth Celebration” presented by A. Bruce Williams, President of the Virginia African American Cultural Center. In this presentation, he discussed his vision for the center as well as local history and storytelling. Because of its timeliness and the appeal to such a large audience, it was one of the branch’s most well-attended programs with 33 attendees including a Virginia Beach City Council member. We have seen the attendance figures for both programs increase over our pre-pandemic numbers.

Virginia Beach Public Library’s Bayside branch quickly and successfully adjusted its service model to meet the needs of our customers without compromise to our programs or services. The ongoing success of the talking book service and ability to flex is attributed to staff’s devotion to their customers as well as Virginia Beach Public Library’s core values: passion, innovation and excellence. It is often said that in times of crisis people are either at their best or their worst. In this instance, Bayside staff have consistently been at their best, banding together for the collective good of their customers even with modifications to pre-existing workflows.

University Libraries Support Instruction with Lecture Capture Service

Jonathan Bradley, Ph.D., Head of Studios and Innovative Technologies; Kayla B. McNabb, M.A., Head of Instructional Content and Design; Alice Rogers, M.A., Media Design Studios Manager, University Libraries, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia

The University Libraries at Virginia Tech began offering bookable recording spaces to the campus community in 2017 with the first of our Media Design Studios. The spaces have been popular with students, but there has been limited use by faculty and staff. In Spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the university to transition instruction online, and members of our library faculty began planning to transition these and other spaces for lecture capture and remote teaching.

We investigated existing services on campus in an effort to prevent duplication. While we found some limited offerings from other groups, our planned service, which includes a lightboard, seemed unique enough to warrant moving forward. We also found that among those other offerings, support was focused on semester-long requests rather than short-term use. Because of this, booking procedures were not as familiar to most faculty, so our hope was to bring more visibility to options on campus as a whole.

When library staff returned to Newman Library at the beginning of the fall semester, we began moving and setting up equipment in spaces that were likely going to be underutilized given social distancing and reduced capacity in the library. We converted an in-person data visualization space to a lecture capture space using a lightboard, cameras, and lighting from our other recording services (Figure 4). This transition of space purpose was completed in September. Meanwhile, the service was added into our LibCal instance as a bookable space, using a private URL that would be shared directly with teaching faculty via listservs and departmental liaisons.

Figure 4 

VT Media Design Studios Manager Alice Rogers demonstrates use of the Learning Glass in University Libraries’ lecture capture space. Photo: Glenn Lily Frank.

Teaching faculty can follow the URL to the booking page, where they can provide their email and choose a time they would like to come in. They are also presented with multiple capture “designs,” different layouts set up ahead of time for them that include slides capture + camera, dual camera angles, and others. Once they have made their booking and show up for the session, they are greeted by a student worker, who will start the recording session according to the requested parameters and leave the room while the faculty member records. Once recording is complete, the student returns to help finalize and upload the recording for the faculty member.

The variety of the equipment we gathered from our studios allows for multiple setups. We have a wireless lavalier microphone to use for audio, which is ideal when recording a person in front of the camera. The microphone is minimally visible, and it does not capture as much ambient sound from the library. This type of microphone can also be used for recording voice-only lecture capture, although we also have a USB microphone for this setup. For video, we use a capture card, which allows us to connect the camera to the computer using a USB-A connection. This enables us to record directly onto a computer, which helps with multiple video options (such as document camera or screen capture). We also have a number of lighting setups, one where all the lights are behind the lightboard to reduce reflections, and another where the lights are more spread out for a standard lecture capture.

Multiple health and safety considerations have been put in place to help protect both faculty and the student workers who coordinate the space while maintaining a positive recording experience for patrons. Since many faculty members will want to remove their masks while recording, students are asked to leave the room during the actual recording session in order to limit exposure to droplets. Students are also provided with PPE, including gloves, masks, and disinfecting supplies in order to sanitize the space directly after the faculty member leaves. We have included 30 minutes of padding between possible booking times, as that amount of time was recommended by our Environment Health and Safety unit as a sufficient timeframe for the air to completely circulate in a room that size.

With this current offering in place, we hope that Libraries employees will be able to offer personalized support and instruction safely and facilitate an easier transition to online learning for all faculty and staff, particularly as Virginia Tech moves classes fully online after Thanksgiving break and looks toward Spring 2021 with many online and hybrid class offerings. Throughout this crisis, we are continually monitoring requests with plans to expand to additional underutilized spaces if the demand warrants it and considering what ‘lessons learned’ might be applicable as we look to a future post-COVID-19.

The Road to Digital Equity and Inclusion in Newport News

Sonia Alcántara-Antoine, Former Director, Newport News Public Library, Newport News, Virginia

The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare all of our weaknesses as a country. What started off as a public health crisis has spiraled into a series of crises testing our resolve as a nation, including a digital inequity crisis. Internet access was once considered a luxury but has fast become a necessity for basic survival. All students needed access to the internet during the pandemic to be able to successfully complete online coursework. However, an estimated 3.7 million households with children do not have internet access. Work suddenly went virtual and online for some, but for others it became a lifeline connecting them to job applications and unemployment benefits. Lastly, internet access has been crucial to stay abreast of the latest information and data from public health officials and the scientific community.

Being unconnected in a hyper-connected world and economy has left millions of Americans behind. It is debilitating and gets in the way of one’s ability to survive and thrive. Phrases like ‘digital divide’ are anemic and do not adequately address the catastrophic impact the issue has on our children and on our economy. Because words matter and are powerful, we have the opportunity to call it what it is: digital poverty, digital inequity, and digital exclusion. Lack of broadband access disproportionately impacts people of color and poorer communities. Many see the issue as a rural issue where there is a lack of infrastructure and ‘last mile’ connections that connect a home to fiber. However, it is equally an urban issue where the infrastructure exists, but residents cannot afford to pay for internet service.

Newport News Public Library (NNPL) has been on the forefront of providing internet access to residents. We have invested heavily to ensure patrons have access to the most up-to-date technology and fastest internet speeds. During the pandemic we tripled our collection of Wi-Fi hotspots so that we could better support students and residents (Figure 5). We beefed up our Wi-Fi signal strength so that residents could access the internet from our parking lots at all hours of the day. We established a mobile Wi-Fi outreach program where staff parked in designated areas around the city with hotspots, providing internet access to residents beyond the library.

Figure 5 

NNPL Wi-Fi Hotspot available for circulation. Photo: Christian Nocera.

Early on during the pandemic, the city of Newport News was visited by Senator Tim Kaine and Congressman Bobby Scott. After having won a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods Initiative grant, Kaine and Scott wanted to check on our progress and hear about issues impacting residents. When I shared with them that Newport News is the 7th worst connected city in the country, their eyebrows shot up. “Why is it so bad?” they asked me. The inability for residents to afford internet access is a clear obstacle in my community. All that NNPL does is ultimately a Band-Aid solution that does not truly solve the problem of digital poverty and inequity.

Ideally, the city of Newport News would be in a position to create an internet utility for residents, like water or electricity, which would provide universal and affordable internet access. Unfortunately, Virginia is one of 22 states with laws that prohibit any locality from competing with the telecommunications industry by heavily subsidizing internet service for their residents. A few localities in Virginia are trying to get around it, but it is a legal minefield and an uphill battle.

So where do we go from here? Understanding the playing field (i.e., laws and data) is key, as well as building strategic partnerships. In an effort to make our local broadband providers allies and not adversaries, we convened a conversation to figure out how we can get to digital inclusion. NNPL had a seat at the table, which also included representatives from the City Manager’s office and from our local school district. Discussions are at the nascent stage, but at least there is a common goal and spirit of cooperation among all the players. Broadband providers have demonstrated a willingness to be open to finding solutions that will serve residents.

At the library level, we have invested heavily in our available hotspots, and we are on track to have 400 hotspots in circulation by the end of this fiscal year. We have worked with the city’s Planning Department to create GIS maps that show the levels of broadband access in the Newport News households. This data, coupled with the latest Census data on internet access for my community, allows us to target services strategically. Our new Library on the Move outreach vehicle will be driving to areas of lowest access and offering mobile Wi-Fi access and other services. I have been serving on the Urban Libraries Council’s Digital Equity Action Team, where we are developing action strategies that library leaders can employ to advocate for digital inclusion in their communities.

Lately, so much of our focus as library leaders has been about balancing service and safety in the pandemic. A larger issue that we all need to grapple with is how to leverage our platform to build robust and prosperous communities beyond COVID-19. This cannot happen without digital equity and inclusion. Libraries play a unique role in being conveners and innovators and breaking down barriers and building lasting supports that will sustain communities going forward.

Meeting Information Needs

Public libraries have a mandate to meet the information needs of their community members and during this pandemic this has never been more important. Some of those at the highest risk for contracting COVID-19 are members of marginalized groups who need health information or technology or who work low-income jobs and depend on free library service. Patrons have been appreciative of the efforts made by their local library to provide the safest possible services, with waves and shouted “thank you” and “miss you,” to notes, flowers, and candy. At the Chesapeake Public Library, staff became valued members of the COVID-relief effort in the community by sewing masks and helping the registrar and helping anyone who had a need they were able to fill, while continuing to provide materials and services as safely as possible. Chesterfield County Public Library has also offered curbside hold pickup since March, but quickly pivoted to reimagine new ways to communicate with customers through chat and a call center and to stream live programs. At the beginning of the school year, library spaces were converted and schedules expanded to provide reservable learning pods as an option for students and teachers with Wi-Fi or other technology challenges.

More than Just Books

Will Yarbrough, Office Specialist, Library Administration, Chesapeake Public Library, Chesapeake, Virginia

Ann Goodman has seen the library through changes big and small. She has been our Law Librarian since the late 1980s, when we operated out of what is now the City’s Treasurer’s Office, the collection stored behind a walk-in vault. She remembers pre-internet, days spent tunneling through the stacks, like a soot-faced coal miner, digging for shiny answers to the most curious of questions. But like everyone else, Goodman had never seen a pandemic. When COVID-19 closed our buildings to the public, our curbside service and a phone bank were quick to open, but the library felt eerily empty, void of goings-on about town and the scuffle of sneakers into the children’s room. Staff, too, were at home, including Goodman, who in 30 years had never teleworked.

“And I still haven’t,” Goodman told me. She’s kidding. But as librarians will attest, the profession isn’t easily done from afar. Her duties require physical databases, not to mention a heavy-duty printer and plenty of manila envelopes. “Plus, at home, I’ve got four dogs that want my attention.”

Goodman wasn’t alone. Teen coordinator Renee Coker-Griffin, who’s been with us about as long, had also never teleworked. And with good reason. At home, her internet isn’t reliable. “Even logging in was a struggle.”

“Libraries are about connecting with the underserved, those who might lack access to technology,” said Joseph Daniels. “But COVID stopped us from going into those communities.” Daniels and fellow Outreach librarians worked to adjust to the ‘new normal,’ but as furloughs hit libraries, he began to worry. As did administrative staff (including yours truly). Initially, Wendy Anderson had enough invoices to keep her busy. But soon, she said, some vendors stopped shipping. “I was running out of things to do.”

Fortunately, our library is directed by Amanda Jackson. “My job is to ensure the library remains essential,” she told me, unfazed by the Post-its that hang about her office like jungle leaves from behind a desk inhabited by clay frogs and a nearly life-sized, bespectacled orangutan. “I’m constantly looking for needs in our community that we can help meet.”

When Jackson learned Chesapeake was struggling to procure PPE, she quickly offered the library’s help. “The library is not just a building filled with books but especially talented librarians both willing and capable of assisting the public however needed.” One librarian Jackson had in mind was Valerie Moore. Along with making her own clothes, Moore heads “Sewing Circle,” a class for budding sewers. Except–instead of tote bags and pajamas, Moore was leading Goodman, Anderson and others to sew face masks and surgical gowns. “The comradery was beautiful,” said Moore (Figure 6).

Figure 6 

Valerie Moore sews masks at Chesapeake Public Library. Photo: Vivian Washington.

Behind the closed doors of our Major Hillard branch, staff formed an assembly line much like those aboard the fleets that pass into our harbors. Fabric was cut, seams sewed, ironed and backstitched, before finally threaded with ribbon. In total, 4,500 masks and 30 gowns were produced for first responders and city employees.

Who distributed them? Look no further than Daniels, who has ample experience behind the wheel of our tech vans. From the firehouse to the water plant, he delivered PPE throughout Chesapeake. Eventually, he was promoted to logistics coordinator for our entire stockpile. Though initially overwhelmed, he said librarianship helped him adapt. “Analyzing data, caring for people, is natural to what we do.”

Of course, the pandemic didn’t stop there. Our Voter Registrar’s Office, chaired since 1999 by Mary Lynn Pinkerman, was ambushed by the increase in absentee ballots. For local elections, typically Pinkerman anticipates between one- and two-thousand requests to vote absentee. Instead, she received 21,000–on par with a presidential election.

But the library didn’t stop either. As Pinkerman was starting to fret, Jackson flew to the rescue. “Like an angel dropped from heaven,” Pinkerman said. Stuffing ballots requires attention to detail, as each is specified by both voter and precinct. “Which is perfect for library staff,” said Coker-Griffin, who proved so up to the task that she is helping prepare a record number of requests for November.

“I’m fond of telling people the impossible just takes longer,” Goodman said. “But the library will save you some time.”

Rapid Innovation and Constant Adaptation of Library Service During Pandemic

Dana Bomba, Branch Manager, Chester Library; Stephen Hudson, Marketing Coordinator, Community Services Department, Chesterfield County Public Library, Chesterfield, Virginia

In March 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Chesterfield County Public Library (CCPL) closed to the public. The library, and the county, quickly mobilized its employees to work from home. Virtual teams were formed and began collaborating to implement new, creative services, virtual programming, and in the fall, learning pods to support local schools and teleworkers. This quick, decisive action to restructure the way CCPL provides services to the community closely aligns with Chesterfield County’s strategic plan, titled “Blueprint Chesterfield,” and reinforces the value of innovation when solving problems or delivering services.

The first and fastest innovation was the introduction of curbside holds pick-up service. About a week after the library closed, staff started working in teams to retrieve holds from the shelf, check them out to waiting customers and deliver them to a designated curbside area. CCPL was the second library in the region to introduce this new curbside service. In May, curbside printing pick-up was added to the service, providing printing services within 24 hours of the request. As CCPL opens more locations this fall, curbside services have continued at all ten library locations, allowing customers to access services at their preferred library.

CCPL was receiving a large volume of calls during the early weeks of the pandemic. To help manage these calls, CCPL introduced a call center into their workflow. All incoming public phone lines were routed to the call center that is staffed by employees working from home and in the buildings. Diverting the calls to the call center allowed staff working curbside services to be more efficient and less overwhelmed. Customers have used the call center service to learn about current library services and hours, place holds, request reader’s advisory, ask reference questions, and apply for a library card. An added benefit was the reduced need for cleaning of phones and other touchpoints. Cleaning protocols were mandated when the first three branches reopened to the public in June 2020 (Figure 7).

Figure 7 

James Hudson, Meadowdale Library Manager for CCPL, sanitizes a public workstation at an open branch. Photo: Ricky Gibson.

Shortly after the call center services began, a new “Live Chat with a Librarian” widget was added to the library website. This widget connected customers directly with a librarian via a text-based chat. Customers use the new chat service to ask questions about the website, library operations and hours, and to seek book recommendations and ask reference questions, similar to the call center. Staff were able to monitor the chat service while teleworking or from the library buildings.

Programming has always been a large part of CCPL’s customer experience. Daily virtual story times began airing live on Facebook just one week after the library closed to the public. These live video events continued for five months with little interruption, allowing customers to continue to connect with some of their favorite story time librarians. Numerous messages of appreciation poured in from the parents and caregivers of our smallest customers: “Landon skipped to the couch yelling happily, ‘It’s story time!’” and “Thank you so much for providing story time—even grandmothers are enjoying it!!” A story time on strategies for coping and managing emotions led a mom to share the positive impact the story time had on her young son who is on the Autism spectrum. When his routine changed abruptly in March, she looked for ways to establish a quarantine routine, saying “no matter what else was happening, knowing that we could sit down and have a story time break at 10:30 a.m. was a huge psychological boost.” Upon learning of this a staff member said, “I truly believe story times help kids and families in ways we sometimes don’t even know.”

In September 2020, CCPL introduced a unique reservable Learning Pod service for the community. The learning pods provide a safe and engaging space for virtual learning, independent study, team assignments, adult literacy, and teleworking. Customer feedback was immediate and positive: “a great experience to get back into a routine” and “I feel really safe and able to focus in the study pod.”

One of Chesterfield County Administrator Joe Casey’s fiscal year 2021 priorities is to “maximize the library’s space to safely serve employers, parents, students and citizens to work safely and provide an array of new services.” CCPL has proven through its rapid innovation and constant adaptation of services throughout the pandemic that it can provide quality, essential services to the large and diverse community.


Virginia Libraries thanks all who shared stories about the ways their library responded to the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia. As this article goes to press, infections are surging and restrictions have been tightened, and library administrators continue to be challenged with balancing their commitment to their community with their commitment to staff safety, while juggling teleworking, school children’s needs, and uncertainty about the future.

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