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Read on: B-N libraries are recovering from the pandemic

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Public Library circulation in Bloomington-Normal has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the mix of items circulated has shifted significantly, and online access is far more popular than before COVID.

Bloomington topped 1.1 million items circulated last year, which is at the low end of the average, said library director Jeanne Hamilton. Year-to-date circulation in 2022 is not directly comparable because of library construction and expansion in Bloomington.

Normal is on pace this year to exceed the pre-pandemic level of 690,000 circulated items. Through July, 420,000 items had circulated from the library, said interim director John Fischer.

Fischer said E-books remain more popular than before COVID, though online checkouts have ebbed since the peak in 2020. Digital downloads before the pandemic amounted to about 10% percent of total Bloomington library circulation. During the height of COVID that rose to 20%, and it remains at 17%, said Hamilton.

"There was greater awareness of those resources (than) perhaps we didn't have prior to March of 2020. So, now that continues and the probability that the community wants to use those resources as a choice, I think, is high," said Fischer.

And it’s not all E-books.

“Libraries are starting to offer some streaming services. We have a service that has a lot of independent films available. So, we are seeing an increase in interest in that," said Hamilton.

The choices people make, whether to use hard copy books or e-items, now seem more based on speed and convenience than before the pandemic, she added. Both libraries also report inter-library loans, holds, and requests are up since the pandemic because people discovered those are easy to do.

Other services that expanded during the pandemic to adjust for lack of access to the buildings are persisting, though at a lower level. For example, curbside pickup began in Normal in 201,7 but was a source of first resort during the shutdown.

“We brought out hundreds of items each hour during those first months, serving multiple families each. I think the community helped us make that a success," said Fischer. "Even though we have probably 10 a day still, it's quite different than the 10 we were getting every half hour.”

Bloomington also had curbside service at the library and added a drive-thru window.

Many library users habitually graze the stacks looking for inspiration, novelty, and related works to the item they seek. They might even "judge a book by its cover" and check a volume out based on cover art. That approach wasn’t possible during peak COVID and many libraries, Bloomington included, began a browsing service. Users filled out an online form and offered a topic or genre and staff put together a package of items to fit. Hamilton said Bloomington has chosen to retain that concept even though now the doors are open.

Even though circulation of materials has recovered at both libraries, foot traffic at both public libraries remains down.

In Bloomington's case, that is due in part, to the expansion project that limits access and the size of the collection of materials. Normal has had fewer activities, though the frequency of those events is now picking up and will accelerate closer to the holiday period.

Normal Public Library visitors:

  • 800 per day average before the pandemic
  • 150 per day in 2020
  • 300 per day 2021
  • 450 per day 2022 through July

Neither Hamilton nor Fischer said the decline of in-person visits suggest a long-term change in the role of libraries as community gathering spaces for cultural activities, childhood education, study space, and collaboration.

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WGLT

“I think what we're seeing now is people still want that, but maybe they want to be able to do their group collaboration a little bit farther away from other groups. I think people are a little bit more aware of the spacing around them when they're in a location for an extended time,” said Hamilton.

“I think there's a portion of the community that is reluctant to go back out into public or to go back out into the public into a community space, unless they have, some compelling reason to do so," added Fischer. "But so much of our community does have a compelling reason to do so. They need places to connect, not just to people. They want a place to connect on books they enjoy, genres they enjoy reading. We've got our romance book club. We've got our Lego-my-library where families can come and build Lego creations. Those go on display for the rest of the community. And these connections are, I think, vital.”

One sign that any putative hesitancy to visit will not last, said Fischer, is that account registration is up. The number of library cards in force is not always a good guide to the size of a customer base for libraries because of irregular periods of purging expired cards. But new cardholders signal an intention to use public library resources.

“As an example, during the first quarter of 2019 we made 937 library cards. During the first quarter of 2020 we made 1,061 library cards. Right before the pandemic hit, we were really high. First quarter of 2021 was a rough time. We made 449 library cards. And this March 1 quarter, 1,431 new accounts,” said Fischer.

Fischer and Hamilton said the Bloomington and Normal public libraries mirror many of the nationwide trends in library use, though Hamilton said circulation in the Twin Cities has recovered perhaps faster than the nationwide average.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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