Public libraries are more than the sum of their parts — a stack of books, a friendly librarian, a computer with internet access. They're vital community hubs and, for many, a reliably safe space in an otherwise chaotic and unpredictable world.
But in a crisis, the role of libraries is even more critical. After Hurricane Irma hit Florida in 2017, the Miami-Dade and Broward library systems provided patrons with air conditioning, Wi-Fi, and phone-charging stations. During the 2008 economic recession, more than 10 million people used Broward County libraries, a half-million more than the previous year.
This time around, things are different. As the new coronavirus threatens public health, South Florida's libraries have been shuttered, forcing library staff to find ways to reach patrons virtually.
"COVID-19 might slow us down, but it isn't going to stop us. We are just going to get creative about how we do things," Broward County Library Director Kelvin Watson says.
South Florida's libraries are more than just a place to check out books. The Broward County library system allows cardholders to borrow baking pans and American Girl dolls, for instance. Libraries are safe places for students to finish online homework when Wi-Fi isn't available where they live. Often, libraries are de facto homeless shelters for people with nowhere else to turn.
Leila Khalil, a spokesperson for the Miami-Dade Public Library System, says it's been difficult for staff and patrons to navigate this new disruption thrown their way. Coronavirus produces a set of challenges unlike any other, limiting the libraries' role more than ever. Aiding patrons through the outbreak is difficult, but both library systems hope they are helping them in some way.
"We are a reliable, stable presence in their lives and in their communities," Watson says.
Miami-Dade and Broward are offering access to e-books, videos, magazines, and other online content for people with a library card. Khalil says she has already seen a "definite jump" in people enrolling in the library's Instant eCard, an electronic library card that grants users immediate access to online content and resources.
Watson says it's too early to tell how many people will use online resources in Broward, but he's confident his county will see a similar influx.
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Since the outbreak, libraries across the nation have extended due dates or allowed noncontact dropoff of borrowed materials. Miami-Dade public libraries have already waived fines, and Broward libraries have promised not to enforce any late fees during the closure.
Both the Miami-Dade and Broward library systems say they will continue to offer online tutoring and services for people taking important assessments, such as the U.S. citizenship test and the high school equivalency exam. Staffers are also continuing to help job seekers create resumés.
Watson says libraries have always been a provider of resources for information, education, and recreation — and they'll continue to be.
"Our buildings might close, but the library system does not," he says.