A month after the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic forced it to close the doors to its two branches, the Pickerington Public Library's expanded online services are helping residents through tough times.

Beginning March 16, coronavirus-related health concerns shut down visits to the library's main branch and Sycamore Plaza branch.

The action put a pinch on patrons who regularly visit the library for everything from perusing and checking out books to using library computers, getting homework help or attending a myriad of programs offered on a daily basis.

The circumstances were enough to lead library officials to explore new ways of connecting and serving residents, and those efforts kicked into overdrive following Gov. Mike DeWine's stay-at-home order.

"Our programming team is moving book clubs, early literacy classes, ASL (American Sign Language) classes and other activities to online services," library director Tony Howard said. "Using these tools, customers are able to connect and interact with librarians and library resources at their convenience."

The library also created a new app that can be downloaded in both the Apple and Google Play app stores.

Those advancements have been a godsend for Shannon Cook, who prior to the shutdown visited the library weekly with her children, Anna, 12; Hudson, 9; Nora, 6; and Grady, 4.

"I've been taking advantage of those services a lot," Cook said. "I've always been one to use the (e-book) resource, both for audio books and to read on my Kindle.

"But now I've been able to get some of those for my kids, as well, because they're running out of things to read."

In addition to a stockpile of books and nature backpacks Cook checked out for her children before the library closed its buildings, she's accessing online storytimes to occupy her youngest two children and keep them interested in reading.

She's also trying out things, planning to take part this month in an online version of the Brown Bag Lunch Club that typically meets once a month at the library's main branch.

"I'm trying to supplement some of the kids' learning with some of the resources and programs," Cook said. "I plan on tuning into the book club because I thought, 'Well, I'll be home. I might as well get on and see who's on there.'

"I feel like the Pickerington library is my best friend, and I think anything normal – like storytime – feels great for my kids, especially the little ones. This (the pandemic) is hard, and the app and the online services are making things more enjoyable."

Colleen Bauman, community engagement manager, said the app and expanded online services are the result of a concerted effort by library staff to increase access and inclusiveness for the community.

"On the app, users can connect with virtual news, events, e-branch materials – including audio books and e-books – educational tools, resources and services," Bauman said. "Just like library cards, the application is free to use and accessible on any mobile device.

"Users can utilize the app at their convenience anytime, anywhere."

Bauman said the app and the library's website, pickeringtonlibrary.org, allow library cardholders to get homework help or access resources to learn crafts with CreativeBug, acquire a new language on-the-go through Transparent Languages, tackle home do-it-yourself projects with Home Improvement Resource Center and review Consumer Reports, among other things.

"While the library buildings are closed, Pickerington Public Library's digital doors are always open, anytime, anywhere," she said. "The e-branch is expanding every day.

"Library staff is providing virtual programming, which is then uploaded to the e-branch and YouTube channel. Available are early-literacy classes hosted by youth services staff, staff-led videos on cooking and crafting at-home classes, as well as tutorials on online resources and how to utilize them."

While Cook and her children are embracing the new electronic services, retired teacher Sybrina King said she has had to step out of her comfort zone to use them.

"It's been odd not to be able to run into the library and see people and say, 'Hey, what are you reading?' " King said. "I'm one of those who likes to go in and get the book I want to read.

"But I saw the new app and I was able to download it easily. That is a huge accomplishment for me."

A longtime Brown Bag Lunch Club member, King didn't want to forego her monthly book club meetings even though she's forced to stay home.

"I was really excited to hear about the virtual book club," she said. "I can't wait to hear what people are reading.

"Zoom (the videoconferencing app) will be a whole new experience. It'll also be interesting to see how many of us older, retired folks can figure this out, and to see (how) many new people we get."

Bauman credited the library staff for helping to develop digital resources to keep the community connected to the library, and said some staff members are participating in a variety of videoconferences and children's programs.

"Our mission and vision provide the focus for our staff to continue offering fun and educational classes and other learning opportunities for our community to connect and be lifelong learners," she said.

"A core purpose of libraries is to provide access to information. It is important that we continue to do that even in tough times."