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Innovation showcase

COVID crisis prompts libraries to create new ways to serve their communities

Here’s how libraries in Los Angeles and Somerset County, New Jersey, used ingenuity and technology to reopen for business during the pandemic.


By Sasha Banks-Louie | December 2020


COVID-19 forced many public libraries across the US to close their doors, even as demand for books and digital library services surged. Yet, this 289-year-old American institution has found creative ways to serve its communities amid a litany of new health and safety regulations.

“When the pandemic hit, our patrons were panicked. We were terrified. My team had no precedent for operating in a global health crisis,” says Tina Princenthal, senior librarian in the InfoNow department for the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). With a central library and 73 branches, the LAPL serves more than 4 million people.

Lynn Hoffman

Lynn Hoffman at the Bridgewater branch of the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey

Before the library’s closure in March, Princenthal’s six librarians spent their workdays at LAPL’s Central Library, responding to phone inquiries about topics ranging from book titles to yoga class schedules to computer rental policies. But during LAPL’s pandemic-induced shutdown, Princenthal’s staff, now working remotely, began responding to an increasing number of emails from patrons asking how to return their books. “At first, we had no idea how people could return their books,” Princenthal admits.

LAPL soon moved many of its services online. While patrons wouldn’t be able to check out or return physical books until LAPL created a new process several months later, “we were now able to tell patrons how to get ebooks, register their kids for virtual story time, and how to keep using the library without feeling like the world is falling apart,” Princenthal says.

Few, if any, public libraries in the country were prepared to operate during a global pandemic. Here’s how two library systems—Los Angeles Public Library and Somerset County Library System of New Jersey—responded immediately to new health and safety regulations, created new ways to serve their patrons and staff during shutdowns, and made technology decisions, including running integrated library systems on The Library Corporation’s (TLC) Integrated Library System platform and Oracle Cloud.

No sleep ‘til Somerset

About 2,700 miles northeast of Los Angeles, the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey was also moving its operations and collections online in March. After a one-week shutdown, “I had about three days to get a new digital reference service program up and running,” says Catherine DeBerry, manager of the Bound Brook branch.

Putting in 60-hour weeks to serve about 190,000 patrons across 15 municipalities in 10 branches, one of DeBerry’s biggest challenges was to quickly get 50 staffers trained and equipped to provide reference and information services from home. “One of our main goals was to provide immediate, compassionate, and thorough service to our patrons,” DeBerry says. “We knew a lot of residents were scared, and in some cases, the library was their only link to the outside world.”

 

“We partnered with Oracle in the mid-1990s, because it was the clear choice among database providers. We’ve continued this partnership because OCI is the clear choice among clouds.”

John Burns, Chief Operating Officer, The Library Corporation

Helping the Somerset team preserve that link, and make the transition to remote work easier, was TLC’s CARL•Connect Integrated Library System (ILS), which runs on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure. “We don’t have a lot of in-house network expertise, so the fact that we could run our ILS as a cloud service and make updating software and provisioning servers someone else’s problem was really important to us,” says Lynn Hoffman, director of operations.

While the New Jersey staffers were already using CARL•Connect to manage patron accounts, issue and renew library cards, and check in materials before the pandemic, “when we flipped the switch and had to work from home, the fact that everyone could access CARL•Connect remotely was a lifesaver,” she says.

Library to go

Both the Los Angeles Public Library and the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey had opened several of their branches to serve as “Hands-Free Holds” and “Library-To-Go” hubs, offering novel, contactless ways for their card-carrying patrons to check out and return books. Using the libraries’ websites, patrons could access this new service to search for titles, place holds on books, and schedule in-person pickups at the hubs.

Cathy DeBerry

Cathy DeBerry at the Bound Brook branch, one of 10 branches of the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey

“We had no idea if this program was going to work or not,” recalls Erika Thibault, western area manager and Library-To-Go coordinator for LAPL. While adoption was immediate, “we had to funnel patrons from 73 physical libraries down to just a dozen hubs,” Thibault says. “It was really overwhelming to manage so much pent-up demand, when we were still trying to figure out how to provide this service, and how to do it safely.”

Using a web or mobile interface to TLC’s ILS platform, patrons can search a hub’s online catalog, place holds on items they want, and make appointments to pick those items up. Because the Los Angeles and Somerset County online catalogs run on Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, these requests never touch their in-house networks, take up their bandwidth, or max out their capacity.

To help patrons make their 10-minute pickup windows, and give staff time to bundle the books and place them outside on the library’s Hands-Free Holds tables, Somerset needed a separate set of instructions for each of its 10 branches. “We didn’t want to send patrons to the Hillsborough library, when their books were waiting for them at the Bound Brook branch,” says Hoffman. To build this new set of instructions, and integrate them into CARL•Connect’s hold notification system, Hoffman turned to TLC for help. “They turned it around for us in a week,” she says.

Such pick-up procedures also required the libraries to follow health and safety guidelines. “Our top priority is to make this process safe for our patrons, and safe for our staff,” says Roman Antonio, LAPL’s Panorama City branch manager. When patrons return their items to the branch’s drop box, “we isolate every book for 72 hours before wiping them down, scanning them in, and then putting them back on the shelves.”

Library at home

Making it easier for patrons to access new, digital library services from their homes also required the Los Angeles and the Somerset County library systems to redesign their websites.

“We changed our entire website to focus more on how patrons can get digital ecards, register for online classes, and download streaming videos,” says Catherine Royalty, acting collection services manager for LAPL. “Before the pandemic, our site was mainly used to promote in-person events and our physical collection.”

By the end of March, Royalty’s team had stopped purchasing physical materials altogether and reallocated LAPL’s remaining budget toward growing its digital collections. By July, the library had accumulated more than 5 million downloads of its newly acquired e-media collection. But meeting this demand proved difficult, as the global health crisis suddenly shared center stage with a national movement for racial equality. “So many folks were reading about social justice and Black Lives Matter,” Royalty says. With demand for its ebook collection of works, such as White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist, growing by 10,000 requests per month, “we rushed to work with our e-media providers to secure multiple licenses and provide simultaneous access to those titles.”

Configuring a digital workflow

Returning books

A woman returns her borrowed books to the Panorama City Library-To-Go hub of the Los Angeles Public Library System.

The pandemic forced a lot of library policy changes—which in turn required system changes to the ILS. The libraries stopped charging fines when they couldn’t accept book returns. In both Los Angeles and Somerset County, electronic library cards originally created for patrons to access digital collections were changed to allow holds for physical collections at the Hands-Free Holds and Library-To-Go hubs. And because each of these hubs kept different hours, library administrators had to build a matrix to accurately reflect pickup schedules. “Every parameter change we made had a cascading effect, invoking changes to other library services,” says Matthew Mattson, manager of web technologies and a 23-year administrator of TLC’s CARL•X platform.

Mattson says the CARL•X system, which was built by TLC using Oracle Database, and now managed on Oracle Cloud lnfrastructure, makes it much easier to update catalogs, change pickup and return schedules, issue purchase orders, and run reports than when the platform ran locally in LAPL’s on-premises data center. “The fact that CARL•X is running in the cloud means we can make changes to the system and give remote staff immediate access to it, even during the four-month shutdown, when nobody was allowed to enter the building,” Mattson says.

Oracle Cloud also makes it easy to configure rules for different user groups, such as approved suppliers that provide library materials.

“In the old days, we’d order 200 copies of a book, the vendor would send them all to the central library, and then central would have to update CARL•X manually, specifying how many copies needed to be shipped to each branch,” Mattson says. With CARL•X running in Oracle Cloud, LAPL just specifies the branch allocations in the order form, and then the approved vendors can go into the system and create their drop-ship schedules.

“We don’t have to create a VPN and route them around our network anymore,” he says. “All we do now is provide a list of approved IP addresses, add instructions about the branch allocations to the order, and then the books show up at their designated branches, ready for circulation.”

As public libraries like Somerset and Los Angeles offer more digital content, TLC looks to offer ever more cloud-based services to help them manage it. “OCI brings so many benefits to our developers and staff, as well as to our customers and their patrons, who appreciate the power and scalability that OCI provides,” says John Burns, TLC chief operating officer.

Photography: Los Angeles Public Library System; Somerset County Library System of New Jersey
Illustration: Oracle

Sasha Banks-Louie

Sasha Banks-Louie

An organic hay farmer and writer, Sasha Banks-Louie is a brand journalist at Oracle, covering cloud infrastructure, as well as startups and research institutions.