Off the Shelf: As new director, it’s exciting to see silver linings as access expands

Meredith Wickham
Southwest Public Libraries

In March 2020, Southwest Public Libraries had to close our doors in response to the pandemic. During the year that followed, SPL’s team never stopped working to serve the public. Library staff continually tried out creative ideas, exploring out-of-the-box options and adding new services to safely and responsibly serve our community.

Meredith Wickham

Recently, both SPL locations expanded public access significantly by opening our stacks (shelves) and providing many more public computers for use, adapting our spaces and equipment to do familiar duties in new ways. It has been a joy for me, as the new library director, to witness the SPL team welcoming our patrons back into our buildings. I have seen library lovers walking in, squealing with delight and celebrating with a happy dance, bringing in young children who were too young to remember the library experience – and children of all ages who could remember, grinning beneath their masks. It’s been a season to make this librarian’s heart overflow with gratitude. 

While we celebrate these signs of a return to normal, the library will not be looking to return to a previous baseline but to set new goals. We will honor the time and effort the library team has spent this year adapting our services by learning from it; nothing will be wasted. Librarians have discovered during this challenging year that we can better serve our community, especially when it comes to one of the core values of our profession: access. It is one of the basic foundations of librarianship that all resources provided by the library should be readily, equally and equitably accessible to all library users.

That is more challenging than it looks sometimes. It’s a high bar. But SPL’s team has just gotten closer to it, in the middle of a pandemic.

Here’s an example: 

For decades in libraries, deciding on the timing of programs has been tough. No one time pleases every patron, so most libraries attempt to provide a variety of programs during the day (morning storytimes that can be fit in before lunch and a nap, afterschool programs for children and teens, nighttime events for working adults, weekends for busy people of all ages). But that still meant it was a hit or miss for everyone. This schedule completely excluded some patrons with mobility issues, disabilities or certain health challenges, and it frustrated patrons without easy or reliable access to transportation or who worked certain shifts or had to care for others in their household.

Starting in 2020, patrons who could not previously attend cultural and literary programs could participate with the click of a button. Busy families have access to exciting storytimes, live programs and STEM challenges for their young ones anytime they can make time for an online recording. What a gamechanger!

We will keep some other innovations that improved access, like providing instant library cards upon request, making use of both digital resources and books by mail to reach everyone and growing our online library to meet increasing demand. We at SPL will take all the silver linings and learnings of this extraordinary year and use them to make library service even better.  

Meredith Wickham is the director of Southwest Public Libraries.