IOWA CITY — In library school, you learn a thing or two about responding to a disaster.
Those disasters usually are something like a flood or a fire, though, said Iowa City Public Library Director Elsworth Carman. A pandemic? There were no classes on that.
Instead, Carman said, he relied on the basics of his library education.
“You’re thinking back to everything you learned about being really flexible in what you deliver in your service,” he said. “It’s almost like the general community field training that we have about how to solicit input and how to read the input.”
January will mark two years since Carman, 40, joined the library as its director. It wasn’t long after his anniversary that Carman embarked on what likely will be one of the bigger challenges of his career — guiding a library through a public health crisis.
Carman said his guiding principle throughout the pandemic has been keeping patrons safe and not further contributing to the spread of COVID-19.
“I would say my philosophy has been ... really thinking about the public health aspect,” he said. “What decisions will keep people at home? What decisions will keep people from interacting in an unsafe way?”
The public library last was fully open to the public March 14. At that time, department leaders for the library, parks and recreation, and the senior center all felt the safest response to the pandemic was to shut down.
Carman said that decision — while the right call — felt antithetical to everything he valued about being a librarian.
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“My whole career is about trying to be more accessible and more open to the public,” he said. “I’ve never had that kind of feeling about a decision. You knew it was right, but it felt so wrong.”
Carman said staff worked quickly to re-establish online and phone reference services from home. Digital resources such as streaming services and e-book collections were maintained and bolstered. The children’s section started recording and posting story time programming online.
“It was awesome to watch the staff respond,” Carman said. “We tried to push things that we knew were high-value to the community as soon as we could, even if it meant some guesswork on our part.”
In June, library staff began making physical materials available to patrons again through mail and a curbside pickup service. That required planning, training and outfitting library staff with protective gear.
“It felt great,” Carman said. “I would say when we were able to open those side doors to our curbside service, for many staff it was emotional, for many patrons it was emotional — more than you’d expect.”
The library staff also did its part to respond to Black Lives Matter protests this summer. While the library couldn’t open to the public, library staff put together a list of relevant e-books and anti-racism materials for patrons of all ages. All of it was free, available online and saw “huge engagement,” Carman said.
“It felt good just to continue to be the library,” he said.
In October, the library reopened its lobby to the public, unveiling a grab-and-go service. Computer access and the Bookmobile also returned. However, services — including the Bookmobile and computer access — were scaled back this past week because of the rise in COVID-19 cases in Johnson County. It was the first time the library took a step back on its offerings since the initial closure in March.
Carman said he has been keenly aware that the library is a resource and refuge for some of the city’s most vulnerable populations.
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“We can meet 100 percent of some of our population’s needs,” he said. “We’re meeting maybe zero percent of other people’s needs. As the director, it wears on me thinking about what can we do to support the parts of our community that needs more right now. It’s a constant back and forth — how do you balance your resources?”
That said, library staffers try to celebrate the successes they’ve seen throughout the pandemic, Carman said. And he said the community has been patient as the library takes a more cautious approach than some libraries.
“It’s a special group of people,” Carman said. “Library users have just been so kind and so accommodating to us just trying to figure out the best way forward.
“We love that, and we can’t wait to serve them more.”
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