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Virtual Offerings at Area Libraries See Steady Flow of ‘Foot Traffic’

Falls Church librarian Catherine Wilson talks to a library user curbside after picking up a load of returned books (Photo: Patricia Leslie)

Local libraries’ physical doors may be shut since the Covid-19 pandemic hit, but their virtual doors are seeing plenty of “foot traffic” at all hours of the day in the City of Falls Church and surrounding areas.

Following the shutdown on March 16, Falls Church and Fairfax County library systems have expanded opportunities for users to learn, play, discuss and, of course, read.

A popular library coronavirus change has been the start-up of curbside services which may be extended to “normal” times.

Falls Church library director Jenny Carroll said curbside service at the Mary Riley Styles Public Library helps users who have mobility issues and aids parents who struggle to get children in and out of car seats.

She said her staff performs between 65 and 70 pickups daily, and in May and June, served nearly 1,100 people curbside.

Indeed, a stop at the temporary quarters of the Falls Church Library on South Oak Street showed things had, if anything, gotten busier during the pandemic.

There, librarians scampered from building to car and back again carrying bags of books and materials, placing them inside car trunks (minimizing human contact) and waving goodbye to patrons who ordered the goods online.

While there is never a good time for disease to strike, a move to trailers at Thomas Jefferson Elementary while the library building is renovated on N. Virginia Avenue practically coincided with the library’s Covid-19 closing date.

Using their talents for flexibility, librarians applied their physical and mental muscles to the move and shutdown, scrambling to get curbside service quickly up and going.

Since the library closed, it has added mystery and Jane Austen groups to its online book discussions, virtual programming, more children’s story times and “crafternoons” or craft kits for school-aged children and teens which are available for pickup, too.

Children’s picture books are popular, Carroll said. Parents call or email requests which the librarians gather in bundles and get ready for carry out. Of course, new books are always in demand.

Falls Church has seen a huge growth in digital circulation which shot up 79 percent between April and June this year, compared to last year.

Digital resources and their uses have jumped, too, at Fairfax County Public Libraries. Laurel Tacoma is the manager at the Thomas Jefferson Branch on Arlington Boulevard and says virtual is where it’s at in Fairfax County.

Statistics back her up. Erin Julius, the marketing and communications director for Fairfax County’s libraries, emailed the News-Press to say that, just before Covid-19 hit, librarians correctly forecast a huge demand for digital products and immediately quadrupled those holdings.

Compared to a year ago, digital magazine circulation is up 99 percent in Fairfax County, and total “e-circulation” of all products has grown 18 percent.

Fairfax County added a new digital guide to help serve a public staying at home, Julius continued, and lists a loaded calendar of events on its website with never-ending pages of everything from cooking classes to meditation, fitness, yoga (with and without chairs), discussion groups (Socrates, America’s elections), writing, math, racial issues and much more.

Falls Church Library Director Jenny Carroll with reserved books and materials to be picked up curbside. (Photo: News-Press)

Book clubs for all ages meet and discuss online, and there’s even a reading group for parents and children together.

Fairfax County’s curbside service has also been a big hit. The county began express or limited service in mid-July, but “door traffic,” Tacoma said in a phone interview, “is down.”

Trips to several branches found users in the single digits.

Visits to Fairfax County libraries are limited to 30 minutes and most follow the rule. “People just are very cautious,” Tacoma said. “The service model now is ‘grab and go.'”

The biggest challenges for librarians at Thomas Jefferson have been the mental adjustments of having to refrain from enthusiastically welcoming customers to maintaining safe personal distances. That, and changing seating and turning off some computers to meet new space requirements.

“We’re all very customer service oriented,” Tacoma said, but social distancing wreaks havoc if someone needs help on a computer.

Express services offered by the Fairfax County Public Library will be in place for the foreseeable future, Julius wrote, noting the library closely follows county guidelines.

Online applications for library cards are available at Falls Church and Fairfax County and this year from April to June, requests for new cards in Falls Church beat last year’s total by one (524 to 523).

Both managers praised their staff and the work they have achieved under trying circumstances and changing environments.

The renovated Falls Church building will open late next spring with full public access to the library, if, Carroll said wistfully, “We have a vaccine by then.”

The library is evaluating a regular opening “on a continuing basis in conjunction with local, state and national guidelines” and in discussion with the health department. But things will continue as is, at least through Labor Day.

“We feel like we are doing the right, the safest thing for our staff and patrons.”

Tacoma sighed: “It’s such a hard time for everybody right now, and I am glad we are here for them.”

William Shakespeare wrote some of his best plays, Sir Isaac Newton developed the laws of gravity and motion, John Milton finished Paradise Lost and Samuel Pepys kept a diary, all during the Black Plague.

Albert Einstein wrote that “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library,” but with virtual options galore, now you just need to know the web address.