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Sarasota Tuesday, Apr. 21, 2020 5 months ago

Sarasota libraries expand online alternatives

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During library closures due to COVID-19, the library is offering a digital library card and online programming.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

On a typical day, Sarasota County librarians can be found conducting programs or helping residents find the perfect book.

Lately, however, they’ve been providing technical help for those trying to use computer programs from home.

“We’re still answering phones, and we get a lot of requests for tech help,” said Renee Di Pilato, libraries and historical resources director. “A lot of people are using not just library resources but these types of technology for the first time, so we want to help with that.”

The library is still offering its phone service, but it also added a chat and text option to help residents. The service, called Ask Us, allows people to write in on the website or text employees for help.

Additionally, employees have enhanced the amount of digital content the libraries offers, such as e-books, audio books, music, movies and video classes. Employees also created a digital library card, so those who previously did not have a card could still use library services.

Sarasota County residents can apply for the card online to access all of the library’s content. So far, more than 1,500 people have applied. 

The library has incurred some costs, however, because digital books often cost more than a physical copy. With a digital book, the library buys a license to use the book rather than an actual copy.

The publishers put limits on how many times an online book can be borrowed. Typically, the borrowing number is around 26, Di Pilato said, so after the book is checked out 26 times, the library has to purchase a new license.

“So instead of purchasing it one time, we have to purchase more licenses on a popular book,” Di Pilato said. “Because it’s a license to use it, we end up spending more money on digital content.”

But the library employees wanted to make sure that patrons had access to more than just online materials. They wanted them to also have access to programming, even if it is limited.

Librarians are hosting storytime two days a week on Facebook Live. Residents can tune in Mondays and Thursdays to hear from their favorite librarians.

“The librarians have quite a following with our local families, and so we wanted to make sure that we could still help with those early literacy skills,” Di Pilato said. “Children love coming into the libraries, and if they can’t come in person, this is the next best thing because they can still see the staff members that they know and love.”

Additionally, Di Pilato said employees are hoping to offer different types of programming through Zoom. Residents can check for different programs on the library’s online calendar.

Di Pilato hopes to carry on this type of programming under normal circumstances because she said there are many families who might not be able to make it to the libraries at certain programming times.

Outside of book rentals, another problem many are facing, Di Pilato said, is accessing unemployment benefits. Many use the library for internet and computer access, and because the buildings have been closed, many have not had access to unemployment applications.

To combat this, all libraries are placing unemployment forms outside the buildings. Residents can pick up the printed forms, fill them out and return them through the library book drops.

From there, Di Pilato said the libraries have a partnership with FedEx to get the forms sent directly to Tallahassee with no fee.

Library Wi-Fi remains on though, and residents can access it from the library parking lots.

Outside of new programming, library employees are working to inventory and sanitize the library’s collections, which is more than 900,000 items across the county.

“We want people to be assured that when they come back to the libraries that we’ve really done the deepest cleaning that we can,” Di Pilato said. “When you’re wiping down every item, it takes a lot of time, but it’s certainly worth the investment.”

Additionally, more than 30 library employees are using the library’s Creation Stations to produce masks for county employees.

“In times when people feel helpless, our staff has appreciated having an opportunity to feel helpful contributing to a greater community cause, such as making masks in these times of need,” employee Jamie Naylor said.

Di Pilato hopes to have curbside pickup available to residents in May. Currently, there are 4,000 items on request for curbside pickup.

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