Share this post!

Last Modified: May 8, 2021
Photo of three librarians wearing masks due to the pandemic, sitting in a library and holding books.
Alberta Libraries Respond to COVID-19

By Jessie Bach

As I sit down to write this post, libraries in Alberta have just been told they must close to the public for the third time in the last thirteen months. Following each of these sudden closures, libraries have had to respond quickly to communicate to patrons about what to do with their checked-out library items, how and when to return materials, and how they could pick up their holds. Information campaigns were delivered to the public about available online programs and resources and how to access them from home. At the same time, libraries had a lot of work to do internally. Staff had to transition to work from home when possible, convert their programs and services to online, contactless formats, and develop procedures for the safe handling of materials. 

A major facet of safe materials handling during the pandemic has been the quarantine of new library materials and returns from patrons—a task requiring space, heavy lifting, and detailed scheduling. Throughout the pandemic, library book quarantine periods changed as new scientific evidence came to light. For many months, there was no consensus or official recommendation for quarantine times. Some libraries quarantined items for up to a week, while others did not quarantine them at all. Now, Alberta has recommended a minimum twenty-four-hour quarantine for returned library books. 

Following quarantine, library materials are considered safe and ready to borrow. While restaurants and retail shops offered curbside pickup, libraries implemented contactless curbside borrowing. With curbside borrowing, patrons place holds online as usual. When the hold arrives at their library for pick-up, the library will notify the patron and arrange a time for pick up. A library staff member will then check out the items and place them on a cart or table outside for the patron.  

As with most things library folks do, curbside services have since evolved in all sorts of creative ways. At the Cochrane Public Library, for example, patrons can engage a personal book shopper. To use this service, patrons visit the library’s website, fill out a short form with their library card number, the number of items they would like, the age range, and the subject or type of materials that they want to borrow. A librarian will then curate a package of books that fits the bill and let the patron know when it is ready for pickup! This is a great way for those who love browsing to discover something new.

Library facility closures are a big blow to patrons who rely on libraries to access technology like the internet, computers, scanners, and printers. At the Calgary Public Library, patrons can access curbside printing services. This convenient service allows patrons to submit a print job from their home computer or mobile device, and then visit the library for contactless pickup. In many rural Alberta communities, the digital divide is still a very real issue and the library is a free place to access high-speed internet. At libraries in the Parkland Regional Library System and other locations in Central and Northern Alberta, library patrons can now borrow a TELUS Smart Hub that provides easy-to-use, high speed internet. You can read more about that program here

Pre-pandemic, Alberta libraries offered a myriad of in-person programs for all ages including story-times, book clubs, conversation cafes, educational courses, and more. Thanks to YouTube, chat apps, livestreaming, and the now ubiquitous Zoom, many of these, and other new and exciting programs are now held online. For example, at the Hanna Municipal Library in east-central Alberta, children can now take part in a virtual version of their popular Crafternoon program. Craft kits filled with supplies for the week’s craft can be picked up curbside at the library. Then, every other Friday afternoon, video instructions for the kids to follow are posted to the library’s YouTube channel. Each session also includes a story-time read-along! In Airdrie, the Adult Writer’s Club now meets every Wednesday on Zoom to share their work and get feedback and ideas from a group of local writers. Edmonton Public Library is offering free, online Cree language classes in partnership with the Canadian Native Friendship Centre. This is just a small selection of the thousands of live online and on-demand programs, courses, and recreational options available free from local libraries across the province.

Libraries have offered digital collections and databases for decades. However, the past year has seen an explosion in demand for these resources that can be accessed by library users from the comfort of their own homes. As holds queues rose quickly for e-books on OverDrive and other platforms, libraries re-worked their budgets to purchase a greater proportion of digital titles to make sure that this increasing demand could be met. At Marigold Library System, checkouts per day of ebooks from OverDrive rose 23% during the first month of the pandemic, compared to the average monthly checkouts before March 2020! 

Some e-resources traditionally only available for in-library access, like Ancestry Library Edition, extended access so that patrons could continue their research from home. Freegal Music extended their service to include 24-hour streaming for library patrons. Libraries across the province have focused their communications plans to make sure that patrons know these online resources are available (and free!) to use during the pandemic, as they always have been. To access Ancestry Library Edition, Freegal Music, and more, visit your library’s website or online catalogue.

Across Alberta, libraries have found fun, convenient, and unique ways to continue to deliver services to their communities. Contact your local library to find out what services and programs are available while library facilities are closed.

Beyond the Stacks is a column about libraries in Alberta and the cool, useful, and necessary services they provide.

Photo of Jessie Bach, author of this articleJessie Bach grew up on a family farm in Southern Alberta, and is a life-long library user and book lover. She has a degree in history from the University of Saskatchewan, and a Master of Library and Information Studies from Dalhousie University. Jessie has worked in archives, academic libraries, corporate records management, and now public libraries. Her current role is Bibliographic Services Manager at Marigold Library System where she manages the team that does acquisitions, cataloguing and processing of library material for Marigold’s thirty-six member libraries. She currently lives in Calgary with her partner and, in true librarian fashion, four cats. Jessie likes to read (of course), knit, consume way too many true crime podcasts, and lift weights in the gym. 

Feature image credit: the feature image for this post was taken by Miriam Thompson in the Strathmore Municipal Library in July 2020.