While its physical branches are closed, the library continues to be a critical resource for residents of West Marin.

The Marin County Free Library has ensured that every student who needs an internet hotspot has one, and librarians are filling new roles as disaster service workers. Customers are checking out more online materials than ever and, in response, the library has purchased more e-books and audiobooks, subscribed to new websites and beefed up its online offerings. 

Planning to reopen is underway. Although the buildings will remain closed for a couple more months, libraries should be able to check out books by appointment in June.

Branch managers and circulation supervisors are tackling the logistics of restarting a machine that moves over 2 million items in a regular year. The library has some 5,000 holds and 122,000 outstanding rentals, so the first step will be to see if people still want the books they requested and to collect the ones that people haven’t been able to return. Then, customers will be allowed to order books from the online catalog for pickup outside.

“It’s everybody’s best guess when there’s some return to that ‘Go visit your library and see what’s on the lucky day collection,’” library director Sara Jones said. “We know people want that, but I think we are a ways away from that.”

Libraries are considered high risk settings because visitors gather and touch many surfaces, so they will be one of the last places to reopen. They will also open at a staggered pace, depending on their ability to adapt safely, Ms. Jones said. Smaller branches like Bolinas may be open by appointment only for some time, and each branch will make its own plan based on its layout. Furniture could be rearranged, computers could be spaced out or covered up, and aisles could be limited to one way. 

When libraries closed in Seattle and San Francisco in March, Ms. Jones made the tough call to close the Marin County Free Library’s 10 branches to protect employees. “Whatever the issues are, natural disasters or power outages, we like to be the last organization standing, but this one was different,” she said.

Immediately, employees were thrust into new roles as disaster service workers. Librarians provided childcare for essential workers a week after the shelter-in-place order took effect. Others helped with medical inventory, delivering food and checking vulnerable people into motels. 

West Marin’s branch manager Raemona Taylor has been generating activities and supporting distance learning at the pop-up childcare center in the South Novato Library for months now. She said it has been rewarding to provide the service because it’s a real need, and her experience running a teen center for the National Public Library prepared her to serve the kids, who range from sixth to 12th grade.

Senior library officials have been helping plan Marin’s reopening, not just for libraries but other sectors, like faith-based organizations. There are two working groups related to libraries, one tasked with creating guidelines for all libraries in Marin, and the other looking at how to reopen the branches specifically.

Some employees have stayed in their comfort zone, shifting story time and book clubs online. The Learning Bus, a mobile preschool, is hosting weekly Zoom meetings for children 5 and under, allowing for social interaction, and the library’s English courses have continued, too.

“It’s really important—especially for those adults who are either expanding or learning English right now—that those services didn’t just drop,” Ms. Taylor said.

Around 800 students are using hotspots provided by the library for distance learning. The devices allow students to access the internet as long as they have a cell signal, and the support has been vital for school districts. 

The library had a few hotspots on hand but providing enough so that every student who needed one could have one was another effort. The project cost is $350,000, offset by donations from the Marin Community Foundation and grants from internet service providers. Stakeholders in the Marin Promise Partnership helped distribute the devices. 

The hotspots came with a library card, and students can hold on to them throughout the summer. Teachers can look at aggregate data about how students are using the internet, which can be viewed next to student achievement outcomes to give teachers a sense of what is working.

The hardest people to serve digitally have been very young children, because they need picture books, and older people who don’t use the internet and who rely on the library as a social venue.

The library has spent over $100,000 to purchase e-books and audiobooks on OverDrive, an application that allows people with a library card to check out materials for free, and Kanopy, a streaming service with movies and television. The library also brought back Lynda, a site that has hundreds of courses in subjects like software development, business and photography. The library’s website added three different webpages for kids, teens and adults filled with both practical and entertaining links. All of these tools can be used for free with a library card, which residents can get online at marinlibrary.org.