2020 has been, to say the least, challenging. We began the year on a high note, planning for our 125th anniversary; excited about starting a new year fresh and full of possibilities. It has now been months since we have been able to welcome you inside our buildings.
We miss you!
There have been a lot of rapidly moving parts since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and I wanted to share with you how Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has adapted to fulfill our commitment to engage our community in literacy and learning.
Our Library During the COVID-19 Pandemic
It wasn’t just the Library that closed on March 14, 2020. Within days, schools, businesses, universities, restaurants, arts and cultural institutions, nonprofits – were all shuttered in an effort to combat this virus. Suddenly, many people were out of work; they were stressed and frightened, and in great need of assistance. Based upon our history, we know that many people turn to their public library in difficult times for not only information, but for reassurance, for an escape from their worries and for hope. Libraries, by nature, are community spaces. It was painful not to be able to be there for our community in the way that we had been so many times in the past. Like many nonprofits in our region, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh was faced with the unprecedented task of closing our doors to help flatten the curve. It was a decision I didn’t take lightly.
Throughout my career, I have witnessed people taking comfort in libraries during difficult times, including natural disasters, threats of terrorism and riots. They turn to librarians for unbiased information and reassurance that everything will be OK. People who choose to work in libraries are helpful, curious and creative. Our heart is in public service. And, it’s hard to serve our public when we have to be socially distant from them. It was not an easy decision to temporarily close our physical spaces, but, given the severity of the situation, it was the right one to make for the health and wellbeing of our community.
Within one week, while Pittsburghers stayed home and practiced social distancing, a small team of staff worked remotely to make sure services and resources were available to our patrons. Physical locations may have been closed, but our Library remained open in many ways.
From the early days of the pandemic, our staff pivoted to provide services virtually …
- Answering telephone calls from library users, responding to emails and engaging with patrons in a new chat option from our website;
- Connecting with people seeking assistance in printing important documents, those looking for tax help and those needing to know where to find basic necessities;
- Helping people obtain virtual library cards;
- Expanding our eBook holdings and the availability of a wide range of digital content that our customers could download from home;
- Enhancing our buildings’ Wi-Fi reach, so people could access the Internet from a safe distance;
- Engaging more than 2,700 readers in a “Stay in & Read” challenge;
- Developing virtual content, programs and services, including story-hours, book discussion groups, book reviews and recommendations, craft projects, genealogy support and more, to keep our community engaged, connected and supported;
- Setting up 1:1 appointments so that job seekers, residents with social service needs, and those looking to evolve their business models could receive focused attention;
- Coordinating with 33 other libraries in Allegheny County for summer reading support;
- Partnering with other nonprofits this summer to put thousands of physical copies of books into the hands of children and teens, so they are able to maintain grade-level skills when school begins and stay curious and excited to learn.
Phased Reopening Plan
While closing our system was abrupt, we are now in the process of rolling out a thoughtful phased plan to establish the in-person service that we know our community needs.
I’m pleased to report that all locations are open for contact-free, curbside pickup and returns and, this week, five locations welcomed patrons back inside the buildings for limited in-library service, including PC use and document printing. We have expanded our hours for virtual service, to help more patrons find what they need. Our catalog is accepting new requests and our Shipping Department, which delivers materials to all libraries in Allegheny County, quarantined and processed more than 1,000,000 items that were returned to us after restrictions were lifted. In the last month alone, our Library for the Blind & Physically Handicapped shipped 91,393 titles to Pennsylvanians with print disabilities.
We have more work to do. Our buildings are slowly coming back to life, but we know that we are not reaching as many people as we were before and that some parts of our community are not benefiting from our services at all. Connectivity is essential during this time, and so many of our residents do not have access to the Internet or a computer except at the Library. We expect to roll out limited in-library service to all locations by the end of the month. Plans call for phasing in additional services, such as Grab & Go activity kits for children. We look forward to the time when occupancy and limitations become less restrictive and we can reintroduce in-person storytimes, teen time, language classes, workforce development, and civic and social programming.
Even as we adjust to this moment in time when our services must be restricted to protect the health and safety of our staff and our patrons, we also are planning for the day when we can fully reopen. The renovation and expansion of our Mt. Washington and Downtown locations continues. COVID-19 may have slowed our progress a bit, but I’m delighted to report that both libraries are on track to welcome visitors in late 2020 and early 2021 respectively.
As we make these plans, we know that COVID-19 is still with us and that it will be a while before we can all safely gather at the Library as we did before. Given the nature of this virus, we are prepared to slow or halt the roll-out of these services per guidance from the appropriate government agencies. The health and safety of our patrons and staff is the guiding principle governing our service decisions.
While we have so much to be proud of, I want to be open and honest with you about our future. The Library, like so many nonprofits and businesses in our region, is not immune to the financial pressure that this pandemic has caused. We have worked hard over the last ten years to diversify our funding streams to include robust fundraising, table game revenue from the Rivers Casino and a dedicated library tax in the City of Pittsburgh to complement local sales tax and state funding. Unfortunately, we have hit a perfect storm as the drastic decline in retail sales and business activity has affected nearly all of our revenue streams. To what extent 2021 funding may be impacted remains to be seen as the mandates to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 continue to be in effect for the foreseeable future.
Frankly, we are faced with a very complex and extraordinary situation. Nothing in our training has prepared us for the challenges posed by this pandemic.
However, with any challenge comes opportunity. We continue to develop and deliver library service in new ways. I am proud to lead an organization that is not afraid to roll up its sleeves and find creative solutions that engage our community — in good times and bad — in literacy and learning.
I’ve been reflecting these past several months on how this pandemic has exposed the cracks in our society, the economic and technological divide that became all too apparent as caregivers became teachers; millions of people who depend on reliable computer access needed to file for unemployment benefits; and our most vulnerable residents were often left in isolation. It is the Library that is indeed the great equalizer.
As we look to the fall and the start of school, we already are planning the ways we can support teachers, students and parents who are going to have remote learning as a part their education package. We are focused on how we can help mitigate the digital divide and ensure digital equity throughout our community; the support we can provide to students, teachers and parents and caregivers during what will be a very challenging school year; and the role that our Library can play in helping to eliminate systemic racism in Pittsburgh, including support for those who are engaged in this work and those who want to learn more about it. We are also devising a structure for digital equity partnerships, rolling out a “digital skills help desk” for the community and are working to deliver this assistance via text message as well as email, chat and telephone. Our staff is organizing a digital street team to be proactive in listening, tracking and contributing to online community conversations around the city. In addition to book giveaways for children, we also want to provide ready access to books for all ages on timely community topics such as systemic racism and the Black experience.
Thank You for Your Ongoing Support
I always say that the Library is something we all do together. Libraries are strong and our community is strong. We have been through difficult times before and we will emerge through this challenge too, together.
Thank you for your confidence in Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Until we can all safely gather at the Library, stay safe and stay connected.
Mary Frances Cooper
President & Director
We can’t wait to see you at the Library!Learn more about CLP's Reopening Plan