Connecticut Libraries Pivot During COVID, Provide New and Expanded Services

Connecticut by the Numbers
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During the past two years, libraries in Connecticut, as in states throughout the nation, have added new services in response to the pandemic, often launching them in a matter of days. That responsiveness has led to tens of thousands of virtual programs, and thousands of in-person programs adjusted to comply with safety protocols, according to new reports looking back library services since the onset of COVID-19.

New or enhanced services have included curbside and drive-through pickups, library card registrations online and over the phone, remote reference assistance via phone and live-chat, expanded electronic collections, virtual programs both live and on-demand, lendable hotspots and laptops, and extended Wi-Fi access.

Two new reports, issued by the Connecticut State Library, indicate that while many library use indicators were in decline during this period due to the pandemic and its impact on building closures, open hours, budgets, and staffing resources, there have been numerous highlights, reflecting libraries responding to the public amidst the pandemic:

  • Starting in mid-March 2020, libraries pivoted their program offerings from in-person to virtual, and during the past year, libraries continued to broaden the range of program types being offered for all ages to include outdoor, recorded, virtual, and live programming.
    • As COVID-19 and pandemic guidelines shifted, libraries were able to offer 7,708 in-person programs with 145,928 attendees.
    • Libraries grew their success with online programs, offering a total 43,991 live virtual and prerecorded programs for 582,671 attendees and 913,672 views.
  • Driven by the ease of access from home, borrowing of electronic materials, including e-books and downloadable audio and video, represents almost a quarter of all circulation, up from just 10% two years ago. As libraries noted the upward usage, they responded with increased budget allocations for e-materials.
  • As library leaders and boards joined the growing social justice movement, many libraries went fine free, taking a stand for equity and inclusion, according to officials. The number of public libraries in Connecticut that are now fine-free more than doubled in the last year from 31 to 64 libraries, with many more currently working towards this goal.
  • Connecticut public libraries received over $8 million in federal funds, representing an infusion of PPP, CARES, and ARPA dollars to sustain operations and services for our local communities throughout the pandemic.

“The data compiled in these reports tells the story of Connecticut libraries and the fortitude and creativity with which they have responded to the pandemic,” said Deborah Schander, Connecticut State Librarian. “While services and access may look a little different from how they have in the past, our libraries are open, responsive, and an integral part of community life.”

The Connecticut State Library is an Executive Branch agency of the State of Connecticut, providing a variety of library information, archival, public records, museum, and administrative services to citizens of Connecticut, as well as the employees and officials of all three branches of State government. The Connecticut State Library (CSL) Division of Library Development (DLD) provides leadership, funding, education, and statewide services that enhance a local library's ability to deliver high-quality library service to their community.

“We know and feel that the pandemic continues to present challenges to libraries. These reports show us, in real ways, how libraries rapidly adapted over the last few, very long, years,” said Dawn La Valle, Director of the CT State Library Division of Library Development. “Building on our learnings and experiences, together we are now envisioning a suite of innovative and transformational scenarios for future library services, to deepen and grow libraries in their role as critical community hubs now and in the years ahead.”

Fairfield Public Library leaders noted, for example, that “the Library staff worked tirelessly to completely change our way of doing things and still provide full Library services to patrons via efficient curbside service, a good quantity of quality, innovative online programming, creating how-to videos for digital products, launching a podcast, and reworking our collections and spaces for in person service both during limited hours and going forward.”

The two just-released reports, “Connecticut’s Public Libraries: A Statistical Profile, July 2020 – June 2021” and “Statistical Trends in Connecticut Public Libraries, 2021,” provide a wealth of information about the public library landscape in Connecticut.

The data also indicated that during FY2021, 100 local libraries received more funding per capita from their municipality than during the previous year – the lowest number in the past six years – and 73 local libraries received less municipal funding per capita than the previous year – the highest number in the past six years.   

The number of towns with at least one library with fiber-optic internet access increased to 141, up from 136 in the previous year and 133 two years prior. Slater Library in Griswold, for example, “opened our Wifi to the public and expanded the band width to serve the needs of our community and the large number of patrons who were unable to come in to use our computers and services,” according to Director Rebecca Jusseaume.

While books continued to be the most-circulated format, electronic circulation of materials reached the highest percentage of total circulation – 23.9% - in the past six years, up from 6.1% in 2016.  The number of audio downloads also hit a new high – 1,378,273 during FY2021, according to the data, as did the number of video downloads during the year, 314,238.

Bloomfield Public Library Director Elizabeth Lane noted that “Our tech desk appointment and assistance service was one of our most popular services during the pandemic, and included the borrowing of Chromekits, which includes a Chromebook laptop, mobile WiFi hotspot, mouse, and HDMI cable in a laptop bag that can easily be transported from place to place, so that wherever you go, you will have internet access.”

Library leaders from across the state also stressed the adaptability that has characterized the pandemic years. Beginning in April 2020, the Andover Public Library, for example “adapted to ‘new’ technology with which we were not overly familiar, offering everything from Storytime (live & recorded) on Facebook to monthly book discussions via Zoom. Later on, as COVID numbers dropped a bit, we offered book discussions in a hybrid manner -- both via Zoom and in-person with masks and social distancing,” explained Director Amy Orlomoski.

Following the end of each fiscal year, the CT State Library collects data from public libraries in Connecticut through the State Annual Report, which includes a combination of national questions provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and state questions created specifically for Connecticut’s libraries. The statistics compiled in this just-released Profile are based on the FY2021 Annual Reports submitted by CT public libraries in the fall of 2021. The Statistical Trends publication identifies and explains trends in the use and management of CT public libraries over the past 10 or more years through the current fiscal year.

The array of changes in the New Haven Free Public Library illustrate the breadth of the effort at libraries across the state to respond to their patrons. They report “officially going fine free as of July 1, 2020. Fitted all locations with COVID-compliant safety measures to allow for safe, in-person service.  Installed self-check stations at all locations which includes an option for users to checkout via smartphone app.  Launched Chromebook and Wi-Fi hotspot lending program for the public. Offered curbside book service, virtual programs, and Take and Make kits from all locations.  Completed outreach visits to area soup kitchens, meal sites, schools, vaccine sites and through bookmobile visits.  Completed beaming Wi-Fi off of the Ives, Wilson and Mitchell branches to expand free internet connectivity in outside areas around these locations for the community. Completed inventory of entire materials collection.”

Along with state library agencies across the country, Connecticut’s State Data Coordinator, Maria Bernier, provides Connecticut’s  library data for inclusion in the annual Public Libraries Survey (PLS), which tells the story of library services across the country. Collected annually since 1988, the PLS explores when, where, and how library services are changing to meet the needs of the public. Supplied annually by approximately 9,000 public library systems across the country, this data provides information that policymakers and practitioners use to make informed decisions about the support and strategic management of libraries.

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