Last June, King County libraries were the focal point of the culture wars, as protesters on both sides rallied for and against Drag Queen Story Hours. But this year the scene is much different, as staff work to prepare to reopen after coronavirus shutdowns.
Libraries were shuttered in mid-March as COVID-19 cases spiked across the state. The county was approved to enter Phase 2 on June 19, and more services will soon be available, said Julie Acteson, spokesperson for the King County Library System.
“It is important that we start these services to the public,” Acteson said.
The libraries themselves will remain closed to the public until the county enters Phase 3. That’s when libraries will be opened with limited hours and services. Museums also will be allowed to reopen.
The closure has been unprecedented for the library system, which was started during World War II.
During the closure, staff has been conducting training and hosting digital story times and online programming, Acteson said. Some of these programs have seen triple-digit increases in attendance.
“That’s been incredibly positive, and our staff have been super creative in how they are delivering their services,” she said.
Michele Drovdahl is the library regional manager for most locations on the Eastside. She said they’re looking at ways to bring people safely back to the libraries.
For locations like North Bend, which have large outdoor areas, they could start doing story times while safely practicing social distancing measures.
“We are working on it, so if we can do it, we’ll be ready to go,” she said. “Our children’s librarians are really excited.”
The importance of libraries goes beyond providing reading materials for many people. It provides a vital link to the internet for people who don’t otherwise have access.
Several libraries will be getting a WiFi upgrade for their buildings, boosting the signal beyond the parking lots. A list for locations that could receive it wasn’t immediately available, but Fall City and North Bend were contenders.
They’re also increasing the budget for audio and ebooks. At the beginning of the pandemic, the library system added more than $350,000 to its digital budget.
In 2018, more than 4.8 million digital ebooks were checked out from King County libraries. That year, the library system had the most digital books checked out in the country, and third in the world.
Last year, the library system came in second only behind the Los Angeles Public Library.
The coronavirus pandemic has only accelerated that trend.
But, like ovens, Drovdahl thinks physical books will stick around.
“My example all the time is remember when microwaves were first introduced, we would never use our oven ever again. But now we use our microwaves and our ovens,” she said. “Libraries are looking to become a community place, and we want to be community online, and I think we want to be a part of the community in person too.”