Robb Farmer-Curbside Service

Robb Farmer, the director of Smyth County’s public libraries, helped prepare for the first day of curbside service.

Describing the coronavirus pandemic as a really dark cloud, Robb Farmer promised that Smyth County’s library system “will make the best silver lining we can.”

To many patrons’ delight, that lining got brighter when the library’s three branches began curbside service last week. To its younger patrons, the lining was already pretty bright – thanks to virtual Storytimes.

Farmer, the library director, acknowledged the shutdown brought serious darkness to the library as it laid off its part-time staff.

In uncertain times, he said, having a library closed is never a good thing for the community. In this community where Internet access is limited, he noted that the library’s computer usage and printing services have a huge demand. Obviously, he said, those services can’t be provided now. However, he did note that the libraries have turned on their wifi access 24/7 so that people can park nearby and access it.

What services the library can provide virtually, it’s doing so.

The library’s Storytime programs for children are in demand so, Farmer noted, that Tracey “Miss Tracey” Reed is reading children’s books online. Those Facebook posts are being widely shared.

Reed admitted that “taking Storytime virtual was an adjustment at first, for both us and the children we serve.”

“However,” she continued, “we are grateful to work with a community that was willing and eager to learn with us. We miss being able to see our little patrons in person, but their parents have been very forthcoming with positive feedback about this new way to experience Storytime.”

Reed has been particularly pleased to receive stories, photos and videos showing children excited “to see the familiar faces from the library reading to them again. It gives them a sense of normalcy in a world that’s been shaken up by the pandemic. Virtual Storytime is a chance to give the children of our area a few minutes where they can focus on having fun. They can watch the videos as many times as they need to and we will always be there excited to share the books we read or songs we sing with them.”

Virtual Storytimes also present another benefit, Reed said, in that “we can reach kids who might not otherwise be able to come to Storytime during our regular scheduled hours, due to scheduling conflicts or lack of transportation. Virtual Storytime allows us to continue to help children find the joy of reading, even if we are apart.”

For adult fans, other librarians are also doing readings and presentations online using books in the public domain. Those projects, he said, have helped patrons discover how truly scary Edgar Allan Poe is and how really funny Mark Twain is.

Kris Sheets, the Saltville branch’s librarian, is leading two virtual book clubs with significant followings, Farmer noted, and projects are under way for the Chilhowie branch.

“It’s actually showcasing some of the skill sets my people possess,” said Farmer. “I try to just stay out of their way.”

Still the library staffers wanted to do more. “We know our services are valuable. Patrons were clamoring” for more, Farmer said.

Staffers continued to research and network with other libraries.

Sheets proposed offering curbside service so patrons could check out materials. Farmer admits he was skeptical. Also a lawyer, he said, “I automatically think of the worst case scenario.” He talked the idea over with all staffers, not wanting anyone to participate who didn’t feel safe. [Please see accompanying article.]

They explored logistics as all three branches – Chilhowie, Marion and Saltville – have different layouts.

Everyone was on board.

On the day the library announced the curbside service, all the open spots for the first week (one day per week at each branch) were filled. Farmer called the response phenomenal.

As the library continues this service, Farmer said staff are also working on plans for reopening, putting together the best scenario for patrons and the staffers who work on the front lines. He expects the branches to ease into reopening with limited numbers and enhanced cleaning.

Of high importance to the staff is summer reading, which serves more than a thousand people each year. It won’t look the same as in past years, Farmer said, but they’re still assessing how it can be offered in some form.

While the library is closed, Byron Johnson, who cares for library’s buildings and grounds, has performed deep cleaning.

While the pandemic is going to affect operations for a long time, Farmer said, “We’ll keep moving forward and exploring options.”

“It’s a confusing, scary time,” he concluded, “but the work we’re doing is rewarding and appreciated.”

To learn more about the library’s services, visit www.smythcountypubliclibraries.net or its Facebook page.

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