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Pandemic Lessons: How Tulsa City-County Library evolved to help people during COVID-19

Tulsa City-County Library 2021 homepage
Posted at 9:04 AM, Sep 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-09 10:04:46-04

TULSA, Okla. — When March 2020 started, no one anticipated a major shutdown due to the first wave of COVID-19 sweeping the nation by the end of the month.

Tulsa businesses, big and small, scrambled to decide how to survive in a remote, digital-focused world.

Like so many others in an unprecedented time, Tulsa City-County Library dedicated itself to help Tulsans learn and navigate their ‘new normal.’ But even with a plan in place, the transition still wasn’t easy.

“We were lucky enough to have had an infrastructure plan,” said Kim Johnson, CEO of TCCL. “But I don’t think there was anything that could’ve prepared us for what we were about to encounter.”

TCCL started implementing more digitally focused innovation in 2013. In the past decade, they introduced self-serving checkout stations, ways for people to automate and plan their visits, as well as flexing the physical space for each of their 24 branches.

Modernizing was a big step, Johnson acknowledges. However, going from up to 7,000 visitors walking through their doors every day to shutting down completely was something they never had to do before.

It didn’t stop TCCL from being involved in the community and offering its services from a distance. Library staff hosted virtual programs from their homes, ranging from yoga sessions to live book chats.

“Over 88,000 people took advantage of these programs. So that really showed us that the public was looking for an outlet,” said Johnson. “It showed that their neighborhood libraries were there for them.”

The pandemic became a time where Tulsans could pick up new skills, or in the library’s case, the book they finally wanted to read – and the numbers don’t lie.

In the year of a shutdown, TCCL saw:

  • Over 500,000 checkouts picked up and nearly three-quarters of a million curbside visits.
  • Over 860,000 people logged onto any of the library branches free wi-fi.
  • A major increase in newly registered accounts and library cardholders.

Johnson said these numbers are not a coincidence to her in such a dark time.

“You know, public libraries, we are part of the community. I’m here to support the folks with a library card, but we’re also here for those without one.”

Since modernizing, TCCL has been dedicated to bridging the digital divide across Tulsa. The library even received the 2019 Library of the Future Award for its Digital Literacy Lab, a creator-focused space where people can work with technology.

Even during a nationwide shutdown, TCCL offered free 24/7 access to their wi-fi at any of their branches, as well as checking out hotspots to students during the school year with distanced learning.

Bridging the digital divide meant more during a time of uncertainty as COVID cases rose and the U.S. saw a major focus on social justice in the summer months. Tulsa got a major spotlight in the months leading into the centennial commemoration of the Race Massacre.

Whether it’s bringing the latest in COVID information or tailoring to people’s new interest in Tulsa history, Johnson said the main role of a library is to provide timely, accurate information, and it is evident Tulsans took advantage of the resources the library provided.

Johnson had this to say when reflecting on the past year:

“Tulsans value learning and they welcome the opportunity to learn about the history, culture, and contributions of various ethnic groups. It is important that we are looking at all of America's history and how their history fits into telling out our collective stories. So, we're responding to the questions from the community that we received and then being able to provide these resources in the form of a book.”

Providing people with resources to learn and research through books, speeches, and more wasn’t a one-person job. It was a collective help from the library’s staff, including those who work at the Genealogy, African American, American Indian, and Hispanic Resource Centers.

Johnson praises TCCL’s staff as the huge part of why the transition period was so successful., especially now that all 24 branches of TCCL are open full-time. She said all the staff dealt with new challenges at work and dealing with their own personal lives at home.

While having to learn a lot in a short amount of time, TCCL used their technology to continue innovating and reinventing themselves in a dark period.

They expanded their e-materials and services available by phone, call, or text for those who prefer to stay remote. They’ve even recently updated their curbside pickup services with a new app to schedule ahead for future visits.

TCCL is not moving forward without Tulsa’s input, though. The library had a community engagement survey live on its website to hear their thoughts directly. They wanted to know what the public thinks and what their needs are moving forward.

“What does life look like post-COVID-19? No one knows,” Johnson stated. “However, what we are doing is working.”

Johnson may not know what the future holds, but she knows TCCL will continue to reinvent, stay current, remove barriers, and provide convenience to everyone.

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