DISTRICT’s Gwendolyn Haley 
and Patrick Roewe

Spokane County’s libraries are proving flexible in order to serve the community through the pandemic

Local libraries aren’t what they used to be. Gone is the stereotypical stuffy repository of books, replaced by a hub of activity for all ages occurring both inside the building and beyond the stacks. What can you do at your local library? Research the job market, print documents, listen to a story, take an art class, discover the ever-expanding world of digital books, videos, and other material. These are just a few of the many things you can do at any of Spokane’s vast county and citywide systems.

So when COVID forced their temporary closure, SPOKANE COUNTY LIBRARY DISTRICT looked to both the past and the future in order to pivot for the public.

The last time they’d experienced any closures was during the windstorm in 2015, says Communications & Development Director Jane Baker.

“Power outages were the issue then, so our libraries that were open provided extra charging stations and a warm place to gather, use the internet and enjoy our collection,” says Baker.

This year, Baker says, they had a different challenge.

“In anticipating an increased demand for downloadable eBooks and audiobooks, the district shifted budget to immediately increase our digital offerings to meet demand,” Baker says.

“With the increased use of the internet, especially for distance-learning, the district applied for and was granted hot spots that were made available for checkout,” something they’re continuing to expand to meet demand.

The district moved some programs and events online, such as their civic labs and artist-in-residence programs, experimenting with both social media and Zoom to find the best results.

When they were allowed to reopen — albeit briefly in early November — social-distancing guidelines varied according to the size of each of their 11 locations: Airway Heights, Argonne, Cheney, Deer Park, Fairfield, Medical Lake, Moran Prairie, North Spokane, Otis Orchards, Spokane Valley, and The BookEnd in Spokane Valley Mall.

They’ve learned a few things along the way, Baker says.

“Probably the biggest ‘aha’ for us is the popularity of curbside pickup,” including the mobile print service they added and will continue to offer as part of their standard list of services.

“Not only are customers picking up books, DVDs and CDs, but we also offer activity kits that go along with our virtual programs. Parents sign up their kids for the activities and pick up the kits curbside, then log into the program and follow along with the activity or the craft. Families are loving this program.”

Their virtual programs are also a big win. “November’s Disney Trivia had over 100 players,” Baker says. “The Instant Pot programs are just as popular online as they were in the library, and our own virtual version of Nailed It! had 49 contestants attempting to decorate a turkey-shaped cake.”

Curbside service has also been popular at SPOKANE PUBLIC LIBRARY, which began offering that in June, says Amanda Donovan, director of marketing and communications. They figure they’ve responded to 31,000 curbside requests.

Like the county, SPL has gone back to the drawing board to retool programs. They developed programming on their YouTube channel, redistributed spending to their digital offerings and extended due dates until they could ascertain the best way to handle returns, Donovan says.

Something new is their “book bundles” to replace the browsing experience, says Donovan. “Customers can use our curbside scheduling form to pick a book bundle in their favorite genre, and then a staff member will hand select four or five suggested titles.” Call it your own personal librarian service!

Their online programming has gotten a significant boost. “We’ve made videos on finding your house history online, art breaks — instructional videos on art projects you can do at home — kids book reviews, online story time, and more,” says Donovan, who adds that they’ve racked up more than 32,000 page views. Additional programs include walking tours, a video with a bestselling author, virtual book clubs and preschool Zoom show-n-tell.

The next chapter on life during the pandemic remains to be written, not only for the region’s libraries, but also for the public, yet Donovan and Baker are optimistic.

“We’ve really enjoyed expanding our video and virtual programming and can see a definite opportunity to continue to offer those programs,” Donovan says.

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