CNCounty News

County libraries reimagine their roles in wake of pandemic

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Key Takeaways

County libraries across the country are adapting to help local governments recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and provide long-term services to communities.

County library staff discussed the future of county libraries and the role that library systems can play when it comes to social justice, economic mobility, closing the digital divide and providing social services to residents during a meetup July 10 at NACo’s 2021 Annual Conference.

In Prince George’s County, Md., the library system adapted throughout the pandemic to provide services to residents including launching a vaccine hotline center at the library to help connect residents to vaccines. 

“If there’s an idea, bring it to the library because you’d be surprised how willing we are to start something new that can grow,” said Roberta Phillips, CEO of the Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. “Libraries are all about creation.”

She explained how libraries’ efforts focus on community health with libraries administering flu shots, providing yoga classes and holding other wellbeing activities. 

“People come to the library,” she said. “They like the library. It feels like another home.” 

She added that while county libraries focus on building relationships, they work to connect residents to resources and services such as providing information on homeless shelters, connecting individuals to workforce development programs or connecting library patrons to social workers who are hired as part of the library staff.

“These are partnerships that are going to help our community as a whole,” she said. 

County library officials talked about changes to county systems following the pandemic with many county libraries looking to reimagine their facilities to be used for other purposes.  

Johnson County, Kan. Assistant County Manager Joe Waters said they are rebuilding many of their older libraries with new spaces that have both small and large meeting spaces with many computers. 

While they are not reducing space limits, Waters said they are evolving already existing space to serve different roles in communities. Some new spaces are being constructed with children and teens in mind to encourage youth to visit the library. 

“We have a significant percentage of our population that still want books,” he said.

Waters said libraries help a county’s overall economic vitality. 

“We are finding that an investment in our libraries is economic development,” he said. 

In Scott County, Minn., Commissioner Barbara Weckman Brekke said the library went on the road with a book mobile that worked to improve early literacy in communities. 

The book mobile visits the same locations for multiple weeks to build relationships with residents.

“This is more than just a bookmobile,” she said of the connections it helps strengthen within the community. 

County library officials also discussed the possibility of using library space for different uses, as office buildings are downsizing and more employees work from home. 

Phillips said they are looking at “rework library spaces” and creating free space where there are desks and equipment that those working from home may not have in their own spaces. The county library will work to help entrepreneurs and small businesses with library staff members even trained to help write small business plans. 

Linda Thompson, New Hanover County, N.C. chief diversity and equity officer, said the county is partnering with the county library and a community college system to offer all high school seniors who graduated this year free tuition. 

“[It’s a] great partnership with our library,” Thompson said. “There’s great space at the library and it’s a great way to drive young people there.”

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