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The Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County reinvents itself during pandemic

“We want the library to be here for everyone, no matter what is going on in the world, so, online is certainly one way we can do that,” library Executive Director Aimee Fifarek said.
Aimee Fifarek3 06172020

[EDITOR'S NOTE — Each week, this feature section, “Movers and Makers,” will feature the stories of the movers, launchers, entrepreneurs and makers who contribute to the vitality of the Mahoning Valley. This section is supported by our first community partner, Farmers National Bank.]

YOUNGSTOWN — When it comes to dealing with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, even leaders at well-established institutions have been challenged to take on reinvention.

Before the pandemic, library Executive Director Aimee Fifarek said the Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County system didn’t do much virtual programming, focusing instead on traditional face-to-face events. 

Amid new rules on social distancing and gatherings and even a system-wide closing, the library staff has added Facebook Live chat and a blog, coordinated virtual live events and released a number of videos. 

“We've had to figure it all out as we've gone along, so it's been a lot of fun,” Fifarek said. “Although I'm sad we are in this situation, I'm happy we had the opportunity to be forced into these situations because we have talents in our staff that we suspected but had never had an opportunity to give an outlet to.” 

And the reinvention continues as four libraries in the system reopen today for in-person service: Brownlee Woods, Newport, Sebring and Springfield. 

Fifarek said although the four locations are reopening, each will still offer virtual programming, as well as introduce new safety precautions. Services will be geared toward prioritizing the two things that they haven’t been able to do remotely — computer and copy machine access. 

Each library will have a greeter, equipped with masks and hand sanitizer for patrons, who will assist guests with their computer and copy needs for the day. 

Fifarek said in each building the computers are set up for 50 minutes of access to allow for 10 minutes of cleaning time between. The libraries are also adopting a “copy center style” approach to help guests make copies. Library employees will copy up to 10 pages at no cost. More copies can be made for an additional fee to the guest’s library account. No cash will be accepted. 

According to the library’s website, limited hours and capacity include: 

• Brownlee Woods: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday. Capacity: 14; most services by appointment only. 
• Newport: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Capacity: 25. 
• Sebring:  9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday.  Capacity: 14. 
• Springfield: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday. Capacity: 13. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the library system added curbside services to its Austintown, Boardman and Canfield branches, as well as the Main Library in Youngstown. Fifarek said the service will be available at all libraries as they reopen. 

“You'll go [to the website] and you'll place a hold, and then you'll get a pickup notice either through email or phone,” Fifarek said. “You don't need to let us know when you're coming to pick it up. You'll just show up. There'll be a phone number you can call, and then the staff member will bring the materials out to you.” 

The Public Library of Youngstown & Mahoning County system has also gotten creative in its annual summer children’s reading programs this year. Fifarek said the Virtual Summer Discovery didn’t gain as many pre-registered students as in years past but has had good participation. 

The program runs through July 31 and encourages students to cover two bingo cards, each square encouraging 15 minutes of reading or an activity, in order to participate in a fall celebration. 

“It's very different than it has been in previous years because usually what we do is at the end of the school year, a lot of our staff are able to go visit kids in the classrooms, get them for library cards and get them actually pre-signed up for the summer reading program. We didn't have that opportunity this year,” Fifarek said. 

Fifarek said a decision hasn’t been made on what the fall celebration will look like this year. 

“Adults have been giving us good feedback on the different blogs and Facebook live events that we've been doing for them too. So, hopefully, everybody's found something good during our summer reading program,” she said. 

For Fifarek, it’s been important for the library system to increase programming to assist adults and teens as they face pandemic-related stressors like working from home or helping their children with homework. 

“We want the library to be here for everyone, no matter what is going on in the world, so, online is certainly one way we can do that,” she said.