From Wi-Fi Hotspots To Language Learning, Alachua County Library District Serves Community During Pandemic

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For about seven months in 2020, Radha Selvester couldn’t talk. She had lost her vocal cord nerve, her thyroid and 50 lymph nodes to multiple surgeries and treatment for cancer. During that time, books from the Alachua Branch Library kept the 62-year-old company.

“One of my coping strategies for the stress and anxiety of the pandemic was reading,” Selvester said.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit, Selvester checked out 14 books from the Alachua Branch Library. By the end of July, she sent some back with a note for the librarians explaining she was recovering from a surgery and needed more books to read. Librarians selected a few more based on her preferences, which she was able to obtain by the library’s curbside pickup service, she said.

“You can ask librarians anything, and they’ll help you figure it out,” Selvester said.

Since March 2020, the Alachua County Library District, which is composed of 12 libraries and serves about 271,000 residents, has adapted to respond to people’s needs in a safe manner, following pandemic guidelines from local authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We are focused on helping people with anything they need,” Rachel Cook, the Alachua County Library District’s public relations and marketing manager, said.

Library district buildings closed from the beginning of the pandemic last March until last May, but online services continued to be available.

Gradually, services were re-started or added. In May, the libraries started a curbside service to pick up or drop off books at people’s cars, and by November, they offered computer appointments and browsing hours available at all locations, Cook said.

Jose Cabrera explores the mystery section at Alachua County Headquarters library. (Aurora Martínez/WUFT News)

Gracia Fernández, 26, moved from El Salvador to Gainesville about three year ago and has used the Tower Road Branch Library to its fullest ever since.

“It’s really just a genuine place for everyone — it’s a real inclusive home,” Fernández said. “And the people who work there just so clearly love what they do.”

Instead of getting into the bread-making trend in the pandemic, Fernández began using Libby, the app the library district uses to lend eBooks and eAudiobooks, to read. She also was able to continue practicing her French, thanks to Transparent Language, an online language learning program with more than 100 languages available for free to anyone with a library card.

“I hope more people can see that and appreciate what they’ve got,” Fernández said about library services, “because it’s a really beautiful privilege that they have.”

The Alachua County Library District also help members of the community save hundreds of dollars, said Amber Riess, 26, a Gainesville resident. She is an early children educator and goes at least once a month to the Millhopper Branch Library to check out books not just for herself but also for her children at school.

When people check out books at the library, they receive a receipt that says how much they have saved by borrowing instead of buying.

“My most recent one said, ‘You have saved $237.52’,” Riess added.

Other services the library district offers include a seed library to get seeds for free, a genealogy service to research one’s family tree, help with filling out taxes and free tutoring, Riess said.

“The library is so much more than just a place for books,” Riess said. “They are critical to a thriving community.”

The latest service for the community is “WiFi2Go” hotspots to help people access reliable internet service. The Alachua County Library District Foundation contributed $36,000 to pay for 100 hotspots with funding from an anonymous donor, Cook said.

The program started April 1 and two weeks after, 97 were checked out, Cook said. Alachua County residents with a library card can put a hotspot on hold using the online catalog or calling to any of the library branches. People are notified when one is available, and it can be used for up to seven days.

“There’s no fees; there’s no data limits,” Cook said, “and you can use the hotspot to connect up to five devices to the internet at a time.”

All county libraries re-started in-person visits last month, but pandemic restrictions are still in place. People can once again browse and explore the shelves, but they still can’t stay to read or use the study and conference rooms.

Vinay Desai, Upal Bose and Ravin Mahesh explore the teen section at Alachua County Headquarters library. (Aurora Martínez/WUFT News)

Upon entrance, staff take people’s temperature and ask COVID screening questions. The libraries are also equipped with plexiglass shields and people continue practicing social distancing, Cook said. The curbside service is no longer available, but they still offer outside service, where people can walk up and renew their card or pick up items without coming into the building.

The fiscal year before the pandemic, which ran from October 2019 to September 2020, the Alachua County Library District had 1.3 million visits compared to 585,000 last year.

“It definitely was a big difference,” Cook said. “But that’s obviously because of COVID.”

But the library district noticed its digital checkouts increased by 20%. For the first time, they had more than 1 million digital checkouts in a single fiscal year, Cook said.

Any Alachua County resident can come to a library, present a form of identification and proof of residency, sign up for a library card and receive it immediately. They are free and must be renewed every two years.

“We are here for everyone in the community,” Cook said.

About Aurora Martínez

Aurora is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by emailing news@wuft.org.

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