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The Urbana Free Library: Serving our community with care and resilience

The ingenuity and flexibility of dedicated staff members have been at the heart of every organization’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in the last year. That certainly has been true at The Urbana Free Library (TUFL), where staff were faced with a challenging task last winter: How to continue to offer robust, crucial community resources when visitors no longer had access to the building. TUFL Director Celeste Choate recalls the growing concern amongst her colleagues in conversations and listserv exchanges as news of the pandemic spread early last year. Director Choate said, “While we were grappling with the uncertainty of the situation, we also knew that it was an opportunity to bring awareness to the vast variety of digital resources we offer.” The number of digital resources being utilized by patrons increased before mid-March as community members also prepared for the inevitable. It was understood that library buildings would likely need to close, but how to make the adjustment required some radical rethinking of regular operations.

Since closing the building for the first time on March 14th, in response to Governor Pritzker’s request to stay home and flatten the curve, TUFL staff have adapted their work to not only continue to serve the community, but to expand creatively into a new operational reality. Staff first utilized existing assets to adjust to the new, remote operations and reach into the community as needed. The library’s 3-D printer and a sewing machine were lent out to help produce personal protective equipment for local healthcare workers. Drawing on a rapidly assembled system, the library began offering curbside pickup shortly after the building closed. Patrons could call staff members working from home to get reference help over the phone, and staff continued to provide email reference services. To accommodate increased pressures on patrons, it was decided that all fines and fees would be waived, patrons’ cards would no longer expire, and the number of digital items allowed to be checked out at one time was increased. And by shifting funds from the physical collection budget, the digital collections were expanded. Ramping up communication and outreach was crucial to ensure library users knew about various policy changes and the many online platforms available for use.

New initiatives emerged quickly. An eCard system was established. Software was purchased for the curbside pickup service to make that process more streamlined for patrons and staff. Eager to continue to offering programs, library staff prioritized learning how best to use platforms such as Facebook live and Zoom to begin offering online story times as soon as possible. Online activities now take place multiple times a week – everything from online craft hours and artist studios to cooking classes and book clubs – ensuring a continuity of educational and fun programming for all ages. The Books & More! Bundles Service also provides community members of all ages with a wide variety of librarian-curated resources upon request, with items available at Curbside Pickup. The library has also responded to the need of Urbana residents to have access to WiFi by making an increased number of mobile hotspots available for check-out. Purchased by the Urbana Free Library Foundation and a UC2B grant, these hotspots are an invaluable resource to community members. Chromebooks will soon be available for check-out as well.

High-tech innovations are not the only creative projects launched in this extraordinary year. As a member organization of CU Solidarity Gardens, The Urbana Free Seed Lending Library recently received a donation of over 8,000 seed packets. Patrons can now “check out” seeds from the Seed Library, plant and grow the plants, and bring back new seeds from their harvest. For the upcoming indoor and outdoor growing seasons, the library will offer gardening programs to support community members who want to begin gardening and expand their knowledge.

In July, The Urbana Free Library began its 146th year of service to our community. Closed to the general public since November 20th, the library building will reopen Monday, February 1st, as Champaign County moves into Phase 4 of the Restore Illinois plan. 2021 promises more challenges for all public institutions, but we can be sure that TUFL staff will continue to adapt creatively in order to implement their dynamic mission: to encourage learning and enrich lives by providing access to diverse resources and programs.

To learn more, visit the Urbana Free Library homepage and their COVID-19 Resource Page.

Top photo by Julie McClure.

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