Public libraries stepping up to serve Potomac


Photo by Jeremy Fredricks

The exterior of the Potomac Library on Feb. 12. COVID-19 testing kits and KN95 masks are distributed from the library in the early-afternoons on weekdays and Saturdays.

By Jeremy Fredricks, Editor-in-Chief

Getting into a good book has become a hobby for many over the last two years. In the U.S., there was nearly a 10 percent increase in book sales in 2020, compared to the prior year. Whether it was hard-copy or online, more people were reading than before the pandemic, spending an average of more than 5.5 hours per week. One beneficiary of this increase was the public library system.

A July 2021 poll from Book Riot found that 28 percent of people were using the library more during the pandemic than beforehand. In addition, 37 percent of respondents who said they did not use the library before, will in the future. That is good for the Montgomery County Public Library (MCPL) system, which has not only helped people find a good read, but also recently stepped up to help the Montgomery County government distribute COVID-19 testing kits and N95 masks.

“County administration came to us about a month ago to ask if we could take this on, and as libraries have the locations across the County, and are a trusted public institution, it was a great fit,” MCPL Director Anita Vassallo said. “I think managing the lines in the first few days was [a] bit stressful, but the demand has lessened, and people are very appreciative of the fact that they can pick up the kits and masks so easily.”

Currently, residents can pick up two testing kits (each consisting of two tests) and four adult-sized N95 masks from the 19 locations across the county. The Potomac Library is part of the first round of distribution, occurring from 12 to 2 p.m. every Monday through Saturday; a second round of distribution occurs at other MCPL locations later those days.

“MCPL works very closely with other County Departments, as our operations are dependent upon support from [these offices and departments],” Vassallo said. “The fact that we are a Department of a substantial County Government is very beneficial to us in our mission to provide a high level of customer service to residents.”

MCPL Assistant Director James Donaldson said they distributed 680,447 COVID-19 test and 719,872 N95 masks from Jan. 10 to Feb. 7 and Jan. 21 to Feb. 7, respectively. Staff and volunteers have been handing out the materials to residents, although there has been less need as cases have fallen, according to a Potomac Library staff member.

MCPL is not only helping the county fight COVID-19. Throughout the pandemic, people have shifted from reading print books to using e-books, e-audio and other online resources. MCPL is providing those resources, as eBook and eAudio usage nearly doubled from Fiscal Year 2018 to FY 2021; physical inventory usage was down by about one-third.

“Our numbers of physical books checked out is still lower than prior to the pandemic, possibly because people are still hesitant to visit public spaces,” Vassallo said. “We also launched a new streaming service, Hoopla, and have seen great numbers for that resource’s use. In addition we launched Brainfuse, which is an electronic resource aimed at students and jobseekers, and Northstar Digital Literacy, which helps people assess and improve their computer skill[s].”

WCHS senior Isabella Difilppantonio has been a fan of the library’s updates. Not only did she read more during the pandemic because she had more free time, but she also enjoyed MCPL’s resources.

“I’ve always used books as an escape mechanism, and I needed to escape quarantine in any way possible that wasn’t leaving the house,” Difilppantonio said. “I would use it as a place to spend time with one of my friends after work in this past summer, but before that, when libraries were closed, I would still check out books as a way to curb my boredom.”

As the pandemic pushed programming online, it presented an opportunity for MCPL to reevaluate. MCPL recently announced it will reopen at most locations on Sundays again, as most programming will continue to remain hybrid. While there have been layout changes — including more self-checkout machines for books, loaning laptops in the library and adding more charging stations — these might not be the biggest changes for the system.

“We lifted all fines and fees assessed for overdue materials,” Vassallo said. “We have now gone completely fine free as policy, and join many other public library systems across the county in no longer charging library fines. In addition, we instituted an easy to obtain digital library card, that people could apply for and receive online, in order to be able to use our electronic resources.”

Last February’s move led to more equity and allowed people to continue using libraries, regardless of their previous debts. According to the press release, fine-free libraries had increased circulation, card-holders and return rate on materials, previously thought to be lost.

“I think the fine-free program at the libraries is great! Most of the time, when people return books late, it’s because they simply don’t have the time to go out of their usual way to return a book to the library, and it’s not fair to fine someone for having a busy schedule,” Difilppantonio said. “As long as one returns the items they checked out, they won’t be fined for being late.”

Vassallo is optimistic about the future of public libraries in the U.S., and MCPL specifically, which she says has the support of local leaders and county residents. The work the library system does is important, from helping kids get a head start to providing essential services during a pandemic to allowing readers the opportunity to explore.

“The pandemic has shown how public libraries can rise to challenges, and continue to serve their communities in so many different ways,” Vassallo said. “Public libraries are one of the very few institutions that are physically open to literally everyone, and no one has to explain why they want to be in the space.  Libraries are constantly adapting to the needs of the community, and library staff will always serve as gatekeepers to trusted, factual, verifiable information.”