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Libraries strive to connect at a distance

Next phase will bring limited inside visits, access to computers

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At the Landa Branch Library, Carye Bye wheels out some books, which are available for contactless pickup. Inside access remains off-limits due to the pandemic. Photo by R.B. Ornelas

As the San Antonio Public Library system reopens, COVID-19 is keeping the book closed on visits inside buildings to browse aisles or engage in activities.

Instead, contact-free pickup is available at all 29 locations and virtual services and programs are offered — including at Landa, San Pedro, and Tobin at Oakwell branches, plus Central Library.

Though the facilities resumed operations June 16, a recent surge in positive coronavirus cases has library officials hesitant to promise in-person access anytime soon. Previously, the system was shuttered for weeks to slow the spread of the highly contagious virus.

“The reopening at Landa has been interesting, to say the least,” said Kiyanna Stephens, branch manager at the library, 233 Bushnell Ave. “When the library system opened for Phase 2 services (contact-free pickup), Landa was undergoing (a heating-air conditioning-ventilation) renovation.”

As librarians began implementing rules for patrons, they did so out of a side building known as The Annex, with only one phone.

“The staff that are working on-site have handled the whole situation with so much grace,” she said. “The people that use Landa love their library, so the majority of them are very excited to be back.”

She added, “The contact-free pickup services are new for everyone, so it has been a learning experience for sure. … Everyone has been pretty understanding of the whole situation and have treated the patrons with more kindness and empathy than they did before.”

For those desiring a book instead of online offerings, the curbside drop-off program is alive and well.

Readers can now finally return books they borrowed before the shutdown, plus obtain new ones selected through the library website or by phone. In collecting their new choices, folks wait for a notification by phone or email and go to the location.

Once at the parking lot, call the library and provide your card number. A librarian comes out and leaves the request on a table, where there may also be bags with take-home take-and-make kits for kids and adults.

Cresencia Huff, coordinator of children’s services for the system, said other than the Dial-A-Story phone line, which is updated twice daily, all programming is virtual and available through the library’s website at www.mysapl.org.

There kids can see livestreaming programs including Dinosaur George, and Kids in the Kitchen with the San Antonio Food Bank’s Chef Kelly.

Other videos include librarians reading books aloud, toddler story times and virtual field trips to local museums, parks and the San Antonio Zoo.

“Based on feedback from our staff as well as the general feel of things around the community, I think many of us are experiencing stress due to the pandemic,” Huff said. “We’ve been sharing ideas on our website and social media. It’s really, really challenging for everyone that we can’t offer programs in person right now, but we have to do whatever keeps everyone happy and safe.”

Tracey Knouse, manager of Tobin Library at Oakwell, 4134 Harry Wurzbach Road, said during Phase 3 time-limited computer sessions at all branches will be available, plus perusing and checkout options.

For now, remote services, contactless pickup, and calling must do.

“Tobin employees welcome the chance to interact with patrons again, although most of the conversations take place on the telephone,” Knouse said. “We do get to see folks’ smiling faces when picking up their hold materials.”

Like other city departments, upon arrival, library employees get screened, including temperature readings; social distancing and protective masks are requirements, too.

Even though adults have traded in-person classes for Zoom conferencing, and teens switched to Instagram chatting and online live role-playing games instead of inside their favorite branch, Knouse said library users are just glad for new books to read and videos to watch.

“People are incredibly appreciative that (the libraries) have reopened for noncontact curbside pickup of reserved items,” Knouse said. “Patrons keep asking when they will be able to come in and browse materials and (let) their kids … play in Tobin’s reading castle or on the early literacy computers.”

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