SUNDRE — The COVID-19 pandemic has essentially forced community libraries everywhere to reevaluate and rediscover their roles amid a health crisis.
The Sundre Municipal Library is no different, and manager Karen Tubb presented to town council an update on how the local facility’s staff and governance board have adjusted the delivery of services and programs to continue catering to the needs of patrons.
Once referred to as the community’s living room, Sundre’s library might throughout the pandemic have periodically closed to the public for indoor, in-person activities. But at no point did efforts cease to adapt and find news ways to ensure people who have come to include the library in their lives’ routines would be able to keep accessing a variety of resources.
When she last presented to the former council in 2020, there had been a measured level of cautious optimism that perhaps the glimmer of light at the end of the proverbial tunnel was finally growing brighter with the promise of a return to pre-pandemic normalcy.
“Boy, weren’t we just optimistic,” Tubb told the new council on Nov. 22 during a teleconference presentation.
“Of course the reality of 2021 has been quite different,” she said, adding libraries have been closed for some 40 per cent of this past year to date.
“And even now that we’re open, we’re limited in the kind of indoor, in-person programs we can offer."
While Alberta Health Services and the Public Libraries Services Branch allows the library to offer programs for youth, children and families, available programs such as educational initiatives for adults have been more limited.
“The number of people we’re allowed to have in the building has been reduced, and we’re not allowed to have any organized, recreational gatherings,” she said.
“So, the big question then is how does a library achieve its mandate of serving the needs of the community when faced with such limitations.”
Through creative solutions conjured up by knowledgeable staff, the library has been able to offer technical assistance over the phone, assist patrons with the process of ordering books as well as movies, and provide a supply of take-and-make activity kits for families, she said.
On average, she added staff had during times the building was completely closed to the public nevertheless arranged to accommodate 14 pickups per day, whereby patrons could call in advance with requests for items that were then located and packaged by staff for an easy pickup in front of the library.
“Even now, patrons with compromised health conditions request our curbside service,” she said.
Staff have also endeavoured to place friendly phone calls in an effort to follow up and check in on patrons who haven’t been seen or heard from in some time, while other programs have been modified to adhere to restrictions. Those include outdoor family events such as the StoryWalk, hosted an outdoor arts and culture event, as well as a Halloween trick-or-treat activity at the Sundre & District Museum’s pioneer village.
And of course, online programming for all ages has grown substantially alongside the library’s collection of e-resources including e-books and audio books.
“Many people discovered our e-resources,” she said, emphasizing “many.”
“Usage has increased exponentially,” she said, adding checkouts for e-books alone is up some 350 per cent.
“That of course has had an impact on our purchasing because we’ve made sure that we put some of our acquisition dollars toward the purchase of e-books and audio books.”
Now open in a limited capacity under restrictions since June, the library was successfully able to host the annual summer reading club, which catered to more than 420 children between the ages of 4 and 11 who came through the building’s doors during the summer, she said.
Along the way, she added there have also been programs for families and youth including preschool Rhyme Time, robotics, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) activities, alongside some limited educational opportunities for adults.
“I’m pleased to say circulation is steadily rising,” she said.
Yet even though the library has by many metrics experienced success in the face of adversity, the manager said everyone longs for the day when the building can re-open without restrictions.
“We’re looking forward to the day when we can once again welcome our crafters, painters and book clubs into the library and offer in-person programs for adults, promoting the relationship-building that’s so important for safeguarding mental health," she said.
That last point brought her back to the community’s needs, and how the library plays a role not only in identifying but also addressing issues. That effort is in part taken on through a regularly revised plan of service that was recently updated and approved by the board of directors.
“This is a Public Library Services Branch requirement,” she said, describing the document as “kind of a road guide to assist library staff in collection development and program planning.”
Facilitating that effort this year, she said, was having access to the Greenwood Neigbhourhood Place Society’s community needs assessment draft report.
“As we look ahead, we know that with creativity and imagination, we will build on our successes and find even more ways to foster a healthy community,” she said. “We believe Sundre library makes a difference."
She concluded her presentation by urging council not to take her word for it and proceeding to play a video compilation featuring many testimonials from satisfied patrons.
The budget included in her presentation to council mostly balances out with both revenues and expenses at about $230,000.
Prior to unanimously carrying a motion approving the report for information, councillors asked a few questions.
Coun. Connie Anderson inquired how many patrons live in Sundre and how many are Mountain View County residents.
Although Tubb at the time did not have those numbers immediately available, she followed up to say that as of the end of October, 368 registered patrons live in Sundre while 415 reside in the surrounding rural areas.
"Throughout the year, these numbers fluctuate," she said, adding that statistics from July were almost evenly split down the middle.
Furthermore, she pointed out that a large portion of the many students who live in town and use the library after school, as well as county residents who come to use the internet or participate in programs, don't all have memberships.
Coun. Chris Vardas wondered how wage and benefit increases were factored into the budget, as well as how many employees work at the library.
Tubb said the increases were calculated based on a multiplier of 2.5 per cent annually to accommodate the approximate cost of living adjustment.
The staff, she added, is comprised of herself as the manager plus three employees. The cost to hire a student coordinator to run the summer reading club is borne largely by federal grant funding.