Library Q&A | Beyond Books: Libraries and Technology

with Pat Basler and Lena Kilburn

Christa McAuliffe Library in Framingham, Massachusetts

NOTE: This is Part II of a three part Library Q&A series. Stay tuned for Part III next week and head HERE to read Part I. Listen to the full podcast below!

Welcome to Finegold Alexander’s Library Q&A: a “lessons learned” discussion with the directors of libraries designed by Finegold Alexander. This session, conducted during National Library Week, features Pat Basler of Stoughton Public Library and Lena Kilburn of the Christa McAuliffe Branch Library (Framingham Public Libraries). The session is hosted by Finegold Alexander Principal and Library Sector Leader Ellen Anselone, Director of Design Tony Hsiao, and Associate Architect Josephine Penta.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has created unprecedented challenges on all fronts, but technology has proved to be one of the most difficult for local communities across the country. In the face of remote learning and working, mass digital communication programs like Zoom and Microsoft Teams became essential to human connection and drastically quickened the pace of cloud-based technology. Unfortunately, many communities across the country struggled to keep up with this abrupt change. Many households that previously depended on school computer labs for internet access were now struggling to connect their children to remote classes at home. Senior citizens who depended on libraries and community centers to access computers, read the daily news or complete important medical forms were isolated at home without this critical support.

In the moment of this glaring need, public libraries like Stoughton Public Library and Christa McAuliffe Branch Library stepped in to provide essential resources and technology for their communities, increasing their internet availability and creating new ways for the community to use and access technology - whether that be in their homes, in the library parking lot, or in the library computer lab itself.

Keep scrolling to read our interview with Pat Basler and Lena Kilburn, on their creative strategies for technology or listen to the podcast above for the full event.

Kids using the public computers at Christa McAuliffe Branch Library before the pandemic.

Q: How did you adjust to the pandemic with the current technology you had in place?

Pat: When we were going through the design phase, they really boosted the number of wireless access points all over the building. Then we beefed up our Comcast account significantly because we went from 10 public access computers to over 40. When we shut down and started front porch pickup, we just started checking Chromebooks out like books. We also had test and make sure that porch in the parking lot had wireless access before we advertised. Now if you don’t have wireless or if you don’t have internet at home, you can sit on the porch or in the parking lot and have access. That’s been very helpful.

Our new phone system also easily allows you to forward your calls to a cellphone, so people when they were working every other day at home, could still cover their calls if they needed to. So that was a big help.

Kids access the internet at Stoughton Public Library before the pandemic.

Lena: Yeah, internet access was important for us too. We immediately started advertising that the libraries were essentially hotspots and encouraged people to come use the libraries. We have nice outdoor spaces. The branch library, Christa McAuliffe Library has beautiful outdoor spaces with picnic tables, so folks were always hanging out there and using the building wi-fi. Similarly at the main library, we have a fenced off area that we call “The Learning Yard”. We put a sign up there and invited people to come in and use it for that purpose.

We also used the city because they adopted an app called Jabber that we set up to select staff to make and receive certain calls. And they were really critical. So we cut apart and partnered with the city to do wellness checks on seniors and on other really vulnerable populations. We also take calls for COVID related things. That’s why we’re here as far as I’m concerned.

And then we had to think about how we might provide when we invited people back in the buildings for computer access. Staff helping people on computers is so important – it’s a big part of what our staff do. Like Pat said, not everybody is as savvy as you might imagine. Downloading something or filling out a form can be a challenge for some people. It wasn’t really safe to sit by someone, so we adopted a remote desktop package that our librarians could manipulate and chat with the people who are using the computers. In order to facilitate that, we increased our Chromebooks and our Wi-Fi hotspots.

Technology is everything. In this world we always knew that the digital divide creates a gap between those who have and don’t. Especially for kids who are struggling to have enough Wi-Fit bandwidth in their homes for all four of them. All of that was presenting itself as a problem, so we saw an opportunity to step up as best we could as the library.

“Technology is everything. In this world we always knew that the digital divide creates a gap between those who have and don’t... we saw an opportunity to step up as best we could as the library.”
-Lena Kilburn
Internet access at Stoughton Public Library extends beyond the building's walls and onto their porch and parking lot.

Q: That's great. Have you seen digital content usage increase during the pandemic?

Pat: We completely increased our e-book purchases almost immediately. We’re part of a network where everybody is supposed to purchase some portion, but we devoted a larger chunk of money to downloadable books and other content almost immediately because we weren’t sure if people would be comfortable checking a book out. The first month, we probably had 50% of what checkouts had been before the pandemic. They are still not where they were when the building was new, but we’ve had s steady 5000-6000 circulations a month off the front porch of physical items. E-books are more time consuming. People want to download an E-book, but they don’t know how so they are on the phone with you for 10 minutes to talk through the equipment they have.

I am amazed that our staff was so quick. Many libraries did story time on YouTube. When we did we bought the business model of Zoom that had 10 licenses. At one point, the town called me up and wanted to use that for the town meeting because Google Meets wasn’t going to work. So we (the librarians) are the technology people in most towns. And this was really a good example of how that was demonstrated.

Lena: Yeah, it warms my heart to hear we were all in the same boat doing the same things. We got our business Zoom and got everybody up and running. And then it was “how can we serve people? We invited performers to come in and actually perform in our building in the main library, and we filmed it and sent it out on our YouTube and Facebook Live, and on YouTube Live. Then those that we could record and share we did. We did everything that we could possibly adopt in order to reach out and engage.

We increased our digital content right away as well. We didn’t know how this was going to play out and how much access to physical items people were going to have. We didn’t start curbside until June so we upped our Hoopla [an audio book and e-book service] and increased our collections in overdrive as well. And then we have other streaming services like Kanopy that we made sure to push as well as instructional videos on how to use these things. They were used and are being used even more now. And I think that we’re probably going to keep that up.

We’re also going to keep up Zoom programming, because our programming numbers went crazy. It was incredible, we got so much reach. And it was really exciting when some of our YouTube or Facebook streams for our concerts got thousands of views. It’s just great that we were getting this kind of and engagement. So we’re going to keep doing that.

Pat: Yeah, we will too. We’re getting people attending our programs from Alaska. I mean, they’re from everywhere. And you’re just not going to shut them out. Because everybody’s in the pandemic everywhere. I think, in our minds, you assume, because people may not have access to the internet, that or they may not have a laptop at home and they don’t have access to technology. But really, everyone has a cell phone or a smartphone. Facebook has become a huge advertiser for us. We just put programs on Facebook, maybe once or twice a day and we have a posting every three hours now. It’s just a constant feed, letting them know what’s going on. Then we offer a monthly newsletter. And once people realized that they were going to get paid to stay home, they have to actually be doing something. So on top of staff training and other things that people were trying to improve their abilities was fixing up the website and getting a really good newsletter going. We needed to do all these things that were in the back of our minds, but we just weren’t finding the time to do it. I hate to say there’s a silver lining to this terrible pandemic, but for libraries it really has forced them technology-wise, to come up to a more equal level.

Lena: Yeah, I would agree. 100%. I do see silver linings and thank goodness for that, because it’s such a such a dark time. These realizations and innovations that are going to lead to great things later. I think that libraries are already on the edge of revitalization. Or if you will, people are realizing just how important libraries are even more now. In the Infrastructure Bill, there’s an enormous amount of funding for public libraries. That speaks volumes about what we’re all realizing – that we’re incredibly important institutions that serve our community. Everything that Pat has talked about and that we’ve been doing really speaks to how we are that way and why we are because we think about service first.

Q: How do you anticipate touchless technology and other technologies changing and evolving in the library sphere?

Pat: So when we first started preparing for letting the public backing by appointment, we bought the four foot high plexiglass shields to put all along the outside the desk. Then the question was “how are we going to check out the books?” and it turns out that we now have a couple of touchless scanning self-checkout stations that people can use. With a smartphone, you can have your library card on it and the scanner goes to the plexiglass. I didn’t know that we didn’t know, but we’re just learning this stuff as we go along.

I think the latest report that came out yesterday from the CDC was saying that the virus doesn’t really live on surfaces. That’s not the main way that people are getting the virus, but I think people are going to continue to be a little paranoid about touching stuff in public spaces. I’m not sure how long we’ll have the plexiglass, for instance, but it’s really going to depend on how much more touchless technology we would want. I don’t think there’s a real big demand for that right now for us. We do have self-checkouts, but most people want to talk to the person at the desk. They know that person, they know their name, they know what they like. The people are the library. And I think the pandemic has really proven that people appreciate a phone call. If they’re regular, and we don’t see them every two weeks getting their romance novels, you know what I mean?

“Most people want to talk to the person at the desk. They know that person, they know their name, they know what they like. The people are the library.”
-Pat Basler
The new check out window at Stoughton Public Library: featuring a plexiglass shield.

Lena: Yeah, absolutely. We have self-checkouts and at the branch they are much more utilized. I really think that’s because of the setup. They’re really visible and are right across from the circulation desk. So, you know, should you run into a problem, there’s a staff member right there who can kind of see you’re struggling. At the main library, it is less easy to do that, but they are there. We have also adopted Mobile Checkout on cell phones where you can actually scan an item yourself with your cell phone and checkout.

I would agree, everything that we’re going to adopt we’ll adopt with an eye toward convenience and ease of operations. Like Pat says, our libraries are people absolutely. 100%. And if we can deploy our people to be doing more interesting things then processing items, I think I think I can think of a bunch of things for them to do. Technology can help us step toward those creative projects.

Stay tuned for Part III of our Library Q&A next week: “Looking Ahead: The Post-Pandemic Library”