CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – When the American Library Association recommended last March that all libraries in the United States close their doors to the public in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the national organization fully realized the gravity of its decision even as other businesses and nonprofits around the country were faced with the same difficult choice.

“It is very difficult for us to put forward this recommendation,” the ALA Executive Board said on March 17, 2020. “Libraries pride themselves on being there during critical times for our communities. We are often the only institutions to remain open during times of crisis. Service and stewardship to our communities are core to our profession.”

But in much the same way that most journalists have had to become health care reporters this past year, many libraries have also pivoted during the pandemic. In that sense, the ALA’s recommendation served as a call to arms.

In Charleston specifically, the Charleston County Public Library has changed the way it distributes books, yes, and some of the system’s physical buildings remain closed to the public, but it has also arguably become a health care organization in its own right, facilitating vaccine clinics, helping to connect patrons with health insurance coverage and addressing food insecurity.

”The truth is, that’s the thing people don’t understand about libraries,” said Natalie Hauff, a spokeswoman for Charleston County Public Library. “They’re a little expert at everything.”

One of the hardest parts of her job, Hauff said, is banishing the long-held stigma that libraries are big, quiet warehouses for books.

“The problem is that people just don’t know,” she said. “People don’t know what the library does and the different resources that are available.”

To that end, the following list details some of the ways the library has served, and continues to serve, Charleston residents during the pandemic.

For more information about any of these programs, visit ccpl.org.

MOBILE HOTS SPOTS AND COMPUTER LENDING

Connecting to the internet during COVID-19 became more important than ever, especially for schoolchildren who transitioned to virtual learning will little advance notice last spring. Through a grant program, the library system acquired 100 mobile hot spots dedicated specifically for patrons using rural branches including St. Paul’s Hollywood, Edisto and McClellanville this past year. The system also started lending out 90 Google Chromebooks at nine locations.

LAUNCH OF CAREER KITS

Unemployment soared last year when stay-at-home orders were put in place. The library system’s Career Kits were devised to help job seekers find employment. The kits, which are available to check out just like any other books or library materials, “include a hot spot, a Chromebook computer and one-on-one instruction and support from the library’s Tech Team staff and Workforce Development Librarian.”

WI-FI AVAILABILITY

People have always flocked to libraries to check out books, but connecting to the internet is equally, if not more, important for many patrons.

When the Charleston libraries closed to the public, the system decided to keep Wi-Fi connectivity up and running. According to Hauff, during the first two months after libraries closed in March, a “weekly average of more than 900 people connected to the library’s Wi-Fi outside the facilities, with a total of more than 18,000 connections. During its peak usage, more than 1,700 people used the library’s free Wi-Fi in a week.”

CONTINUATION OF SUMMER FEEDING PROGRAM AND LAUNCH OF KIDS CAFE

Food insecurity among children became a major concern when school closed last spring. In partnership with the Charleston County School District’s Nutrition Services and the Lowcountry Food Bank, the library system distributed more than 11,500 meals to children last summer and then continued to give away free after-school snacks to children at the new Kids Cafe, located at five library branches, when the school year started last fall.

HOSTING VACCINE CLINICS

In another partnership, the library teamed up with Charleston County Emergency Management and Fetter Health Care to host vaccine clinics at the Baxter-Patrick James Island Library and the St. Paul’s Hollywood Library this year. In total, more than 1,000 residents were vaccinated at both locations, with large percentages of patients coming from rural areas.

COMMUNITY GARDEN

In another initiative at the St. Paul’s Hollywood Library, the library system set up a community garden and installed a refrigerator with grant money provided by Roper St. Francis to offer free food to library patrons. Hauff said the refrigerator allows the library to store produce grown in the garden before distributing it to the community.

TELEHEALTH

Telemedicine has been around for years, but it got a big boost at the beginning of the pandemic when it became safer to see a health care provider by way of a computer or smartphone screen. To that end, in mid-February, the library launched its own telehealth program.

The program is facilitated by Amy Chang, a community health worker, who the library system was able to hire with grant funding from the South Carolina Center for Rural and Primary Healthcare and a partnership between the Medical University of South Carolina, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and the College of Charleston.

Appointments can be made at several library locations, where Chang is available to help people connect to social services, sign up for Medicaid and SNAP benefits, or to find a health care provider.

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