Sarasota County libraries helped with many facets of government during pandemic.
When Sarasota residents need information, many find themselves perusing the stacks at one of the county’s libraries.
However, one of the greatest resources the libraries have to offer often isn’t in the reference section. Instead, it can be found seated behind the desk.
When COVID-19 first hit Sarasota County, library workers sprang into action helping residents fill out and mail unemployment forms, and they haven’t slowed down since.
“We have a really strong relationship with our residents and our library users, so top of our mind was always, ‘How can we help?’” said Renee Di Pilato, the libraries and historical resources director. “We needed to make sure we had resources and access for those in need.”
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, librarians have had to adapt to safety protocols by limiting in-building access, establishing a curbside pickup program, meeting the increased demands of e-books, creating digital library cards and ordering hot spots to help residents without Wi-Fi get connected.
Library workers also fielded phone questions for technical help for those using computers from home and created a chat and text platform that allowed those seeking help to write in.
In addition to providing its normal resources, the libraries have helped businesses and individuals seeking a portion of the county’s coronavirus relief funds navigate the application process.
They also used the library’s creation stations to make more than 5,000 masks for Sarasota County government employees. More than 30 staff members volunteered to make masks.
All the while, the library has been navigating a 4% budget hold, which was placed on all the county’s departments.
Although they don’t always have the knowledge base to immediately help, Zina Jayne, the manager of Elsie Quirk Public Library, said the librarians luckily know where to find it: the shelves.
“We don’t know everything; we just know how to find it,” Jayne said. “We don’t have the knowledge base in our heads, but we do have access to so many different kinds of resources. Sometimes we’re just a conduit or a bridge to the information they need, but we really try to be a kind and reliable bridge.”
Di Pilato said staff often researches information or receives training on topics that are pertinent to the community, such as coronavirus relief applications, so they have the skills to help others. They then strive to teach the same information to the community, so residents know how to help themselves after they leave the library.
Although Di Pilato said it can be taxing to constantly research new information, the payoff is worth it.
And, she said, the miscellaneous, jack-of-all-trades job style might be where library work is headed in the future.
“Librarians have always fulfilled many roles, whether we’re helping someone find just the right book for their needs or we’re devising a workshop on how to search for jobs, we have a variety of hats, and I think that type of role for librarians — the multifaceted type of work — is what we’ll be seeing in the future,” Di Pilato said.
Now that the libraries have steady programs in response to the pandemic in place, staff is turning its attention to the county’s centennial.
Staff has planned more than 100 events from March through June that highlight the county’s archaeology, history, arts, famous figures and various communities.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to celebrate the past but also celebrate what makes Sarasota County unique and really think about our aspirations for the future,” Di Pilato said.
At the same time, staff is figuring out how to keep some new programs, such as curbside service and virtual events, in the future.
No matter what they come up with, Jayne said she and the rest of the staff want to continue meeting residents’ needs in whatever form that might take.
“It is really a gift to have a job that is meaningfully, substantially helpful to people in crisis and that we can make a difference,” Jayne said. “I can say 100% of our staff feels really grateful to be in a position to be able to provide help.”