Libraries and social services go hand and hand, especially in the pandemic

“For the last 15-20 years, public libraries have really reinvented themselves, and they are a place to come and stay. It’s not just take a book, leave a book.” That’s what Jennifer Pearson, director of the Marshall County Memorial Library in Tennessee and president of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries, told “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal back in May.

Now that her doors have reopened, Pearson spoke to Ryssdal about the how her library has adapted its services to the pandemic-related needs of the community and how she is thinking about the library’s future. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So you are, I think, back at regular hours, doors are open. A big change from the last time we talked. How’s it going?

Jennifer Pearson: Absolutely. Yes, we are. Our doors are open. We have people in and out all the time now. It’s going pretty well. We are doing appointments, just to maintain a number count in here. We don’t want the numbers to get too high. We’ve started to see an uptick in people coming in. And it’s going pretty well.

Ryssdal: What are folks doing?

Public computers, school help

Pearson: Well, the first thing we did was to open our public computers for appointment because a lot of people need those services to fill out job applications or unemployment forms. We still have some people coming in for the traditional things, you know, finding a book and taking it home. School started here August the third with zero mask mandates. You could either go virtual or go in person.

So another thing that we’re doing here is trying to help the kids who need a little help with the virtual schooling, whether that be tech help, or they need the Wi-Fi that we have here, or they just need homework help. So really, the reason we opened up to our regular hours was to help the kids after school so that we’d have plenty of hours after school for them and on Saturdays.

Ryssdal: Yeah, I’m gonna sound surprised when I say this, but you’re gonna tell me it’s old hat. It seems like a lot of what you’re doing at your library, and one assumes many other small and rural libraries across the country, is more along the lines of social services than traditional old-line library stuff.

Pearson: You’re absolutely right. And I will tell you, it’s old hat, but I will tell you, that sort of thing has ramped up since COVID has been around, in terms of people needing social services and needing our services.

Budget considerations

Ryssdal: Yeah. Let me ask you a rubber-meets-the-road question. We’ve done a lot of stories in “Marketplace” about the budget jam that states and local governments are going to find themselves in, are finding themselves in right now, because of declining tax revenues and all of those things that we know have happened because of this pandemic. Are you getting squeezed budget-wise?

Pearson: I, personally, am not getting squeezed. I took my budget to our budget committee, our county commissioners, and I said, I just want a flat budget. I know this is not the time to be asking for things. I know that, you know, tax revenues are going to be off. They’re generous when they can be, and I knew they couldn’t be this year. So I just didn’t ask. Yeah, we’re just sailing along like we did last year.

Ryssdal: Well, so speaking of sailing along and a year, what do you think? I mean, this is a tough one, right? But what’s your library going to be like in a year do you think?

Pearson: Well, let’s see. I’ll put on my futurist hat and say what I would like it to be is what it used to be, but that’s all gonna depend on this virus and getting it under control. I want to see the library lively. I want to see the programs back. I want to see the kids coming in for storytime again. But I’m not sure that’s what it will be. And it might be that we just continue to streamline our services so that we’re doing the most important things for our community.

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