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story.lead_photo.caption The Argenta Branch of the William F. Laman Library System is shown in this 2014 file photo.

"Eerie" is the word a Craighead County library employee used to describe the couple of weeks before the doors were closed March 17 because of concerns about covid-19.

The day the library closed, Sloane Simmons, assistant youth services manager at the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library, used social media to live-read a book to potentially dozens of children.

"I may not be able to see my audience, but I know my audience," she said via email. "As I read a passage, I recall a specific child that I know would be captivated by the repetition or a child who would point out that there is a dog on the page. I see their smiling faces; I hear them laugh when I say 'underwear.' As we are planning these online events and filming them, we are thinking about you and your kids."

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Libraries across the state and the nation are incorporating ideas like this as officials try to reach their patrons while keeping everyone safe.

The World Health Organization on March 11 declared covid-19 a pandemic.

American health and government officials have advised people to avoid large gatherings and to distance themselves socially in order to slow the spread of the virus, fearing that a spike in infections could overwhelm the country's hospitals.

In response, many of the nation's largest and most prestigious libraries have closed their doors.

The Library of Congress, the largest library in the country, closed all buildings and facilities to the public March 12.

The Smithsonian Institution's 19 museums, galleries, gardens and National Zoo closed their doors two days later as high-profile cultural organizations attempted to contain the spread of covid-19.

These moves, as well as the transmission of the virus to Arkansas, caught the attention of library officials.

Library staffs across the state took extra precautions to ensure their work spaces and public areas were wiped down and sanitized, said Shannan Hicks, a storyteller at the William F. Laman library system in North Little Rock.

Everything changed March 11 when an Arkansas patient who was hospitalized in Pine Bluff tested positive for covid-19, said Bobbie Morgan, director of the Pine Bluff library.

"We went out to try to get all the supplies we needed, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes, but we weren't able to get much because everyone in the country was doing the same thing," she said.

Morgan said the library was able to stay open for a few days longer with the sanitation supplies it had because few people were visiting the library for the first few days. But by last Monday, the computer labs were filled, she said.

"Staff was worried because it was really crowded in there," she said.

She said people were arriving with their own hand soap and sanitizer and that the staff was able to turn off some of the computers to force spacing, but the library's sanitary supplies couldn't keep up.

"We don't want to be the place that promoted the coronavirus to spread," she said of her decision to close the library on Wednesday.

Crystal Gates, president of the Arkansas Library Association and executive director of the William F. Laman Public Library System, said in a news release Thursday that the association encourages all public, academic and special libraries to close their doors and reopen only when guidance from public health officials indicates the risk from covid-19 has subsided.

"While library buildings are not conducive to social distancing and disinfecting to the degree needed to curb the spread of the virus is not feasible at this time, libraries and their workers can continue to be beacons of knowledge and hope," she said in the release.

Libraries across the nation are now learning different ways to adapt.

The Smithsonian quickly made the public aware of its presence on the digital sphere, allowing users to go on virtual tours and view exhibitions, explore historical images and access educational resources from the comfort of home.

Local libraries are adopting some of these same methods, giving digital patrons online access to their audio books, e-books, digital movie rentals, animated kids stories, and digital database.

Libraries also adopted live storytelling. This involves a library official reading pages out of a book during a live social media broadcast.

"We miss the interaction and learning together," Simmons said. "We knew this would be a way to bring quality programming to our patrons while practicing social distancing. It's a responsible engagement."

Hicks described reading a book on social media as akin to being a radio host.

"When you love doing story time, you can do it in front of an audience of one or 1 million," she said. "You are imparting your love of the book and of the story to anyone who listens to or sees it. ... You can't see your audience, but you know that they are out there and they deserve to experience the joy of the story."

Because all Central Arkansas Library System locations are closed through April 20, the only activity in the buildings is workers disinfecting the surfaces, as well as the continuation of the system's meal program.

As far as card applications, story times and other programs go, staff members are figuring out ways the library system can continue its community engagement digitally.

Nathan James, the system's deputy executive director of technology and collection innovation, said the library system is working on a plan to allow people to apply for cards online, which is usually done in person, as well as on a way to do some limited check-out service.

People who have books checked out may be getting overdue notices, but the Central Arkansas system is extending due dates, James said.

The library system was set to kick off a pilot version of an after-school literacy tutoring program for a group of fourth graders at Carver Elementary School last week, system youth services coordinator Ellen Samples said. Officials are now exploring ways to provide tutoring remotely -- perhaps one-on-one via FaceTime.

Staff members say adapting to a pandemic is a challenge, but they're also used to juggling various programs at once.

"It's unsettling," Samples said. "It's also not completely unusual to have a lot of different projects going on."

Virtual programs that are available now through the Central Arkansas system include story times on the Facebook pages for the Terry Library and the Fletcher Library, and on the "CALS Kids @ Main Library" page. There's also a video geared toward adults on the KonMari decluttering method.

Morgan said the Pine Bluff library is allowing patrons to check out books digitally or over the phone and then have them placed in a safe location outside the library where they can be picked up. She said the library also has e-books that can be read online.

For many rural counties across the state, the library is a place where patrons can use the internet for projects, research and more, and Morgan said Jefferson County is keeping that service available.

"I believe most of our parking lots have Wi-Fi, and I have seen people sitting in the parking lot using it," she said.

Robin Campbell, spokesman for the William F. Laman system, stressed the same, mentioning how password-free Wi-Fi is available from the parking lots of the system's Main and Argenta branches.

Gates said that by closing the physical doors and focusing on alternative methods of service, libraries are saving lives.

"Our staff members are our most valuable resource," she said. "Let us all take this opportunity to demonstrate our support for libraries and library workers."

Metro on 03/23/2020

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