Like the often nerve-wracking wait for a hot bestseller to be available for departure, Portland-area residents eager to return to a full slate of Multnomah County Library programs – led storytimes by librarians and live homework help to walk-in technical troubleshooting – will have to calm down a bit longer.
After more than two years of services disrupted by the pandemic, many state-funded institutions in the metropolitan area are back to normal or approaching. School buildings, for example, have been open for regular hours since September, and schools are once again hosting community events, organizing field trips and allowing volunteers; Portland City Council resumed in-person meetings this week. And many suburban libraries, like those in neighboring Washington County, already offer a mix of virtual and in-person programs for all age groups.
The Multnomah County Library has taken a more deliberate approach, said Annie Lewis, director of community services for the system. Regular programming for 0-6 year olds, in particular, will remain almost entirely virtual until the fallshe said, though the plan is to hold a few outdoor storytimes this summer at select libraries, assuming public health guidelines don’t change.
“After two years of virtual programs, we really want to rebuild in-person programs with an equity lens,” Lewis says. “We really focus on prioritizing programs for populations that have experienced oppression and marginalization. We have been more careful with the birth to five populations. The majority of our youth programming over the summer, particularly for birth to five, will continue to be virtual. »
In-person programming will return in three phases. The first, already in progress, allows one-on-one help from a librarian with job search or small business orientation, technology issues or tax assistance, available by appointment only.
These services, Lewis says, were deliberately prioritized for vaccine-eligible populations, which eliminates infants, toddlers and preschoolers under age 5.
In phase two, which is currently rolling out, the library is bringing back “a very small group of in-person events to specific locations – we’re going to slow down by looking at how those in-person events are going,” Lewis says. For example, there’s a Chinese calligraphy workshop on the calendar, and Rockwood Library’s MakerSpace, which is aimed at tweens and teens, reopens next week and will host coding and video creation camps in the coming months. to come.
Librarians have also made a concerted attempt to attend school and community events outside of library buildings, Lewis said, such as the Southeast Asian cultural celebration “New Year in the Park.” from last weekend at Glenhaven Park. A June 19th celebration is also in the works, hosted at the North Portland Library branch.
The obstacle to restarting programming is not resources. The library has a secure funding stream through a dedicated property tax reserve, $1.22 for every $1,000 of assessed value of a home. But staffing, as in many industries, has been a challenge, Lewis says. The system has hired 134 people since August 2021, but still has 41 vacancies, including eight in the youth and teen library division, who would help design in-person programs. Recruitment can be difficult, as these jobs require specialized degrees and also have cultural competency or bilingualism requirements.
As the system is understaffed, employees who might otherwise lead or plan community events have been moved to ensure buildings remain open and accessible, Lewis says, a particular challenge during COVID surges when employees have had to call themselves sick.
Another issue is space. On-site programming is typically done in library branch meeting rooms, but during the pandemic these spaces have been requisitioned for storage or staff workspaces, to free up more space for social distancing. in common areas. Transitioning these spaces back to their original purposes took months given the demand from staff, Lewis says, though that process is now nearly complete.
Virtual programming has been popular for some library patrons, Lewis says, although the opportunity to connect with other job seekers, mystery lovers or families with babies when the programming is online only is more limited.
The library offers a wide variety of online and asynchronous programs — 211 programs in March 2022 alone, and more than 3,500 people participated, Lewis says. (The population of Multnomah County is 815,428, according to the 2020 census.)