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Work Continues For Albany Public Library During Pandemic

Green New Deal forum at the Albany Public Library.
Dave Lucas
Green New Deal forum at the Albany Public Library.

Among the buildings that have been shuttered during the coronavirus pandemic are public libraries. And though digital services continue, Albany Public Library Executive Director Scott Jarzombek says transitioning to a remote model for the time being is a learning process. 

It's been a bizarre balance of doing my work, working from home, which is not something I'm used to and also at the same time trying to balance the schoolwork of an 8- and a 10-year-old, which has been a struggle.

How are they doing?

They're doing OK. Luckily we have a broadband connection and we have the equipment and they're used to that equipment. So for the most part, I think they're doing well. I actually think my one son is adapting to it better than a regular day of school.

Do you want to see kids go to summer school this year? If it's possible.

If it's possible, but only if it's safe. Only if it's safe for parents, only if it's safe for caregivers, only if it's safe for the teachers. I think that's an option but that's going to be really difficult. And one thing people have to understand that in the district in a city like Albany, a lot of the caregivers are people who are older. I know I have a lot of friends and family who are the grandparents, are the ones who pick the kids up after school. So there's people who are most at risk that are engaged in their grandchildren’s, nieces', or nephews' lives. And that's a danger that I think the state and the school district have to take into consideration.

OK, so let's talk now about what the library is doing during these times. I think it's fair to say and correct me if I'm wrong, that there was already sort of a digital transition underway in libraries around the world. As more material has moved online, libraries have had to decide what their physical spaces are going to be for in the future anyway. How is that playing out now that the buildings are by executive order closed?

So it's interesting. We in our strategic plan have actually been moving towards doing more and more, basically programming online, it was a discussion that we had. We piloted it by doing our own podcast, which now we're almost doing weekly. So this was something that we recognize that the library is more than just four walls. It's a service, it's an organization and we need to recognize that some people due to their work schedules, some people due to access reasons can't get to the public library. So we were moving in this direction. And plus, we were seeing a 12 to 18% growth in our use of our Ebook and our E material collection as it was, and that was outpacing our physical book circulation or starting out piece of physical books circulation. So this was already not a transformation in addition to the services we were already providing. So when this switch got flipped for us we had the plans in place. We just had to kind of get ahead of the plan when it came to producing stuff, which I'm blown away by how my staff are doing an amazing job of just doing story times and craft programs via our YouTube channel. And it's really great. And, you know, like I said, it's the direction we were moving, not as a replacement but more as just a new service to add. And I think that's not going to go away in the immediate future. Even when we're back to having our doors open and possibly doing programming I think we're still going to be providing this online content.

Are people using it? Have you seen that those numbers are holding?

Those numbers are holding and they're growing. The only metric we did not see a significant reduction in was program participation. So the amount of people who are watching their videos and engaging in book discussing groups, it's fairly robust and getting closer and closer to what we're seeing number wise when it came to in person participation. So again, I just don't see this going away. I think it's just going to be a part of the work that we do moving into the future.

What kind of role does the library play in working with the city school district here?

We're partners. Part of that, again, as the most recent strategic plan for EPL was to align a lot of our educational programming with the school district in the state's educational guidelines. And we've been doing that. We have a community partner, someone who oversees our community partnerships, and that person is always in contact with school district making sure that the programming that we're providing is kind of in line with what the school district wants to see in regards to their students.

How about the after school approach that the library offers? You know, it's been said libraries are one of the only places left in American society that you don't have to pay a fee to go into, you know what I mean? Kids are gathering there after school. There's all kinds of social interactions that happen in your spaces. Where is that happening now?

We don't know. There are several things that we do for the community that we’re really struggling with and not just on Albany Public Library, but libraries across the country are struggling those roles we play in the community where we are that community space. And for us it's something that we want to get back to, but we know the only way we're going to get back to it is if we follow the protocol set by the experts and do it slowly. So right now libraries across the state are working on reopening plans that look like the reopening plans of retail establishments and other businesses. That will be slow, it will be deliberative, it will be with protocols in mind, and it will be done in a way that if we have to roll things back, we can roll things back. But our job is information and providing information to the community. Sometimes the best way to do that is by your action. So we want to show the community that, like everybody else, we want to get back to where we were. But the only way that's going to happen is if we all work together and do it a smart way.

You'll have to enlighten me on this, is the Albany Public Library budget in any sort of jeopardy? Is it affected in any way by this?

So we're what's called a school district library. And that means that we're a separate district and we're even separate from the school district. It's only called the school district library because it's the same boundaries as the school district. But we have a public vote, you know, whenever we raise our budget. So right now no, I mean, we are concerned about other revenue. We collect pilot payments, we collect revenue through CDTA navigator passes and faxes and some computer use and some printing. So we do see some financial headwinds coming in the next one or two budget years, and they will be significant, but I think we're a pretty sound financial institution. We have put money aside for emergencies and I see us using those funds. And hopefully in the next one or two fiscal years we will see a little bit of a correction and we will not have to worry about it as much. But there will be a financial impact for us, just like everybody else. Just like everybody else at home. Just like every other institution in business.

Not long ago, you made the decision to do away with late fees. What was the idea behind that? And has it had the effect that you hoped it would?

Yes, we saw people coming back in the library who we hadn't seen in years and we saw material be returned to the library that hadn't been returned in years. Getting rid of late fees was all about being equitable. We would do school visits at school classrooms and students would basically say to librarians the library card isn't free, my mom says we can't afford it. And it's because you know, I'm a parent, you lose a book for a couple days, almost every parent I know has had to pay late fees. And so if you’re a child who's going to the library on your own, you don't have that dollar or two to pay that late fee, you're not going to return the book you have. And sometimes you're not going to return to the library, because you're just not going to be able to use it. You know, $5, $10 in late fees seems like a minimal amount of money to pay for library service. But for some people that's a meal, for some people that's a week's worth of bus to get to work. And we definitely saw it as an unreasonable barrier for library use for members of our community who needed the most.

A lot of organizations and individuals are thinking about how they might want to change some things when life goes "back to normal" after this pandemic. In your mind, what should the Albany Public Library learn from this entire experience?

Well, I think we're learning a lot of things internally making us a better organization. When it comes to communication, our staff now, this is a staff of 146, we now meet weekly to kind of give a 15 to 20 minute overview of what's going on at the library and what services we're providing. And we're doing that through conferencing software. You know, it's so much easier and it's great communication. So I think a lot of businesses and a lot of organizations are going to use this opportunity to learn how to better communicate all of the things that they do to their staff and to the public. I don't see life at the library returning to normal for a significant amount of time. But I do see us finding new and interesting ways to serve the public. And like in anything else, those things aren't going to change, they're not going to go away. The thing we've talked about most is book delivery. There are still people who want physical books, and we're trying to figure out new ways to get books to those people. Things like curbside pickup, a lot of libraries are experimenting with. When we believe it’s safe we're going to start a program like that. And I see that as something that's going to last for a significant amount of time. I do think people will use us differently, but at the same time, I think people will also appreciate us because they’ll realize we’re that community space that they really want and need. If we can figure out the protocols that keep our spaces clean and neat and safe for everybody, then we're going to continue with that.

Scott, what are you reading to get through these strange times?

Oh man, I am listening to Bruce Springsteen's autobiography on audiobook. I was very much into dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. I'm not touching any of that. I'm turning into my mom and reading a lot of mysteries. I’m a big fan of Walter Mosley, so that's not new for my reading. I've been rereading his back catalogue. I just finished White Butterfly, which is a really great book and The Trouble Is What I Do. He's a great mystery writer because it's a little bit more street, it's a little bit more kind of the urban landscape, and there's a little bit of history to it. And since I ran out of those books, I am now reading other mystery books and that seems like it's going to be my genre for a while because you know, once you live through the post-apocalyptic landscape a little bit it makes it a little less attractive to spend your downtime experiencing it.

I don't know if you're allowed to say this, but what about The Plague? Has borrowing of that book gone through the roof?

You know, I'm going to look. That's actually one of my favorite books. I thought about re-reading it. I actually re-read it last summer.

So you're ahead of the curve.

Yeah. You know, it's credited as one of the first post-apocalyptic books. And it's very much with what's going on right now. But yeah, I have a copy of it. Like I said, it's one of my favorite books sitting on my shelf. I don't know if I'm ready to read it again. And I hope in a year or two, I'm going to revisit a genre I love and be able to enjoy it again. And with a little bit more experience and forethought.

Scott, anything I didn't ask you about that you want to add on here?

One thing that I think is really important and one thing that I want to get the word out about, one of our jobs in the community is to be the information specialist for the community and we're still answering reference questions. We're doing it by phone and by email. So if you need a phone number, if you want to find out if somewhere is open, if you just want to hear a voice on the other end of the phone, you can call 518-217-2601.That's one of our many reference numbers. You can give us a call, you can ask questions, you could find out about resources. If you're stuck on a few things you can still hear a voice out from the library that's a trusted source to provide information for you. And I think that's really important for people to understand. Those numbers are manned from 10am to 6pm. So give our staff a call and get assistance. You can also email askalibrarian@albanypubliclibrary.org. We’ll be able to answer reference questions there as well. That's almost 24/7. And reach out to us through social media if you are online. And if you're having problems getting online, all our locations the WiFi is on. And the Wi Fi is reachable from the parking lot. So you can sit in your car and still get on our WiFi. So if you're hearing this and you want to get online and you don't have access at home, please go to one of those locations and you will be able to get online. It's a pretty robust connection. We're still here, we're still serving the community. We just want people to know that. People are still using us, but we want more people in the community to use us as well,

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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