It’s hard to surpass the local library as a resource for just about everyone.

Visitors scanning shelves for the works of literary giants of the past rub elbows with users browsing websites via high-speed internet. Books, magazines, newspapers, reference items, DVDs – you name it, it’s all there.

So, access restrictions necessitated by COVID-19 have been a bitter pill for institutions so grounded in serving the public.

“When I have to see a library director break down in tears … you know it is very difficult,” said Robin Newell, Emporia Public Library director, past president of the Kansas Library Association and president of the Plains Library Association, a 12-state regional library collective.

Yet, in combatting the virus, Kansas librarians have leapt into action like knights riding out of the fiction section. They have battled to remain open to the public by reducing operating hours, roping off areas to maintain social distancing and limiting computer use.

The Kansas Library Association has taken a lead role in helping communities weather the pandemic. (Facebook)

Libraries also gathered dozens of participants as part of the Kansas Beats the Virus campaign, a partnership between the Kansas Leadership Center (KLC) and the state of Kansas to convene roughly 1,000 brainstorming sessions on creative ways to spur adherence to good public-health practices.

Libraries are in line to receive thousands of dollars in KLC grants to institute their ideas, including one initiative in Dodge City, where children will be teaching their elders about healthy behavior through storytime and crafts.

As trusted institutions, located in communities big and small, libraries can play a crucial role in pushing out messaging about best practices in fighting the coronavirus. And libraries’ initiatives and creativity might also rub off on restauranteurs and other proprietors of high-traffic businesses.

Some of the ideas coming out of library convenings include:

  • The Johnson County Library Young Adult Lit Council talked about providing “care packages” to make essential workers feel safer, recognized, and valued.
  • The Kinsley Public Library thought up the Kinsley Cares campaign, using branded masks, yard signs and posters to try to overcome partisanship and polarization.
  • The Rossville Community Library envisioned a broad coalition, including senior citizens and elementary school students, to compile and disseminate information on issues such as wearing a mask and getting the COVID vaccine.
  • The Emporia Public Library is encouraging staying at home through “Family Fun Kits,” with puzzles, Legos, a marble game, activity books, cake mixes and Jell-O, and coupons for one month free of unlimited Zoom sessions.

The pandemic has caused upheaval for businesses and nonprofits alike. Libraries face unique circumstances, but they are also demonstrating that humor and social media can go a long way in encouraging adherence to public health directives.

“Libraries are really struggling to find their niche – because it is really different with a library,” said Jo Plumb, director of the Wellington Public Library.  “When you go to a restaurant, you sit in a booth, and so the staff knows exactly where to clean. But when you come to a library, you’re used to browsing. And … libraries are not physically equipped or staffed to walk behind you and clean up everywhere you touched. So, we are all looking to be viable to our communities.”

Newell agreed.

“We are not like the zoo where you can walk through, or other places in town like where you go pay your water bill and there’s a glass,” Newell said. “A library is very high touch. They use our restrooms. They touch the materials. They touch the counter. And right now, we are quarantining the materials for nine days. … It’s just a new world.”

So, with a little word play, the library association is running its “Check Out My Mask” campaign.

School board member and Bonner Springs resident Kim Beets shared her mask on Twitter as part of the Kansas Library Association #checkoutmymask campaign.

The association has encouraged the 326 libraries across Kansas to flood social media with photos of staff and community members wearing masks using #checkoutmymask to help normalize mask wearing.

The beauty of the campaign, Newell said, is that it does not cost money and it’s “just people coming together for a cause, people coming together because they believe strongly that this can make a difference, that individual people can make a difference, just by modeling good health behavior.”

Playing to your strengths is another takeaway from efforts like the one staff is undertaking at the Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library. They are producing fliers about free COVID testing sites, how to wear a mask properly and other information.

“We are an information provider so we can be a bridge to groups like the public health department because we reach so many different people, so many different members of the community,” said Debbie Stanton, the library’s public services supervisor. “We’re really great at being able to provide … information without bias. The fliers have no opinion on them, just factual information that we think will help people make decisions in their daily lives.”

And maybe simple kindness could prove to be the best public health strategy of all.

In Pratt, library Director Eric Killough has put his Coast Guard training to use in setting up an orderly system where the six-person staff rotates between working at home and coming into the building.

But Killough has also personally delivered library materials to homebound seniors.

It’s a brave new world when it comes to places that serve the public, he said, libraries included. And that’s not all bad.

“So, how do you get the library to people?” Killough asked. “There are a lot of new connections and different ways of thinking. Right now, public safety is of paramount importance. We’ve pushed things 20 years ahead in the way businesses are going to operate going forward.”

Beccy Tanner has been a Kansas journalist for the past four decades. She is a fourth-generation Kansan.