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May 20, 2020; Whitecourt Star (Alberta, CA)

You can shut down a library building, but you cannot shut down the library. That’s the clear message being sent by the public library in Whitecourt, Alberta, a small town (population 9,500) located about 110 miles northwest of Edmonton.

“Though no longer able to wander through the aisles, admiring and checking out books, magazines or movies, readers in the region are still accessing the Whitecourt and District Public Library’s wealth of resources in a different way,” explains Olivia Condon in the Whitecourt Star.

We’ve noted before the value of libraries amid the COVID-19 pandemic (along with other community-wide crises) and the central role they play as “responsive havens” in our communities, come what may. In this case of this small city library in Alberta, Condon reports, “Since closing their doors to the public on March 16, the library has seen a significant increase in traffic to their website for e-books, online course offerings and even story time.”

“In the first two weeks of closure alone, our usage more than doubled,” library director Joseph Kubelka tells Condon. He adds, “Even though the library is closed to the public, the community is still making heavy use of the library, and people are turning to us more than ever before to make sure they take advantage of our free memberships and use all of the resources that we can offer without people entering the building.”

To increase public access even as the physical building is closed, the library has waived late fees for members, offered memberships online, and removed password restrictions from its internet so that anyone close to the building can access the network.

The library is also initiating twice-weekly book sales, which will feature “a selection of fiction, non-fiction, magazines, movies and children’s books that are pre-packaged using a vacuum sealer…we’ve got some procedures in place to make sure everything is quarantined and cleaned and that the public that comes to pick up those items is observing social distancing,” explains Kubelka.

In addition, just as story time has migrated online, so has the annual summer reading program, which will last six weeks, starting the second week of June. Kubelka says the library has also introduced an adult and a French-language program to include all members of the community. “The format we’re doing is a live webinar, and then we’ll be posting the recordings and everybody who signs up will pick up an activity kit at the library before the program begins so that all the materials that they’ll need for the six weeks will be in one kit.”

One other priority Kubelka mentions is the need for computer access. Kubelka points out that a number of students had Chromebooks lent from the schools during the school year, but the school is reclaiming its computers in June. Rather than have city residents without access, the library is seeking to get $10,000 in funding, either from government or private grants, to purchase Chromebooks for students in need.

Kubelka adds that the library is also still caring for its two pets—Francisco, the chameleon, and Chomper, the gecko. Both are doing well, he says, but they miss interacting with human visitors.—Steve Dubb