Public Libraries: Reopening & Addressing Social Inequities

The Midstory Team chats with Jason Kucsma, the director of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, about the evolving role of the libraries during the crisis, the move of library resources toward digital infrastructure and considerations on policies for reopening.

Browse by topic or read the transcript of our interview below.

Topics covered:
[0:20] Public libraries as community businesses with critical community resources 
[2:53] The process of closing and reopening the library
[7:24] Considerations in post COVID-19 mask-wearing and children policies
[9:22] The lack in physical community spaces during the pandemic and repurposed meeting rooms
[12:11] Tackling cultural and societal issues and public safety in the library
[15:21] Using the pandemic as a catalyst to rethink and refocus library operations
[19:16] Public libraries as critical and enduring community resources inside and outside of crises
[23:30] The longevity and challenge of digital programming and accessibility
[27:06] Moving forward to seek those opportunities hidden within crises

Logan Sander: Welcome to this week’s episode of the Midpoint, where we’re welcoming the director of the Toledo Lucas County Public Library System, Jason Kucsma, to talk about the evolving role libraries are playing in crisis. Well thank you so much for being with us today, Jason.

Jason Kucsma: Thanks for having me, Logan. I appreciate it.

LS: Well, let’s just get started with some of the basics. We know that libraries for a long time have been sources of materials, books, media, but they’ve also evolved and changed so much to be not just places of physical resources in the sense of books and things like that, but so much more. They’re community gathering spaces, they’re public spaces, they’re addressing needs of socio-economic inequality, education, civic engagement, etc. Tell me a little bit about how the Toledo library fits that need in our community here.

JK:  Yeah, you know it’s interesting, I’ve been talking to quite a few of my colleagues around the state who run other metro libraries in Ohio and we often say that we’re not really in the transactional book business, but we’re in the community business. The libraries are essentially, they’re really a central part of social infrastructure in how we provide access to resources for everyone in the community regardless of your means, regardless of your background, your socioeconomic status. If you try to create something like a library today where everyone can go to it, all the resources, most of the resources are free, you’d be hard-pressed to try to get everyone to agree this is something you should create. That’s one of the reasons I think the public library is so special.

I came to Toledo about five and a half years ago. I started out as a deputy director and then moved into the director role last summer, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our strategic plan as an organization. Part of that plan when we wrote that in 2016 was to answer one question which was, what does success look like in our county and how does the library support that? You think about that’s quite a bit different than a place where you just go check out books and DVDs or use a computer. We’re really thinking about how the library undergirds our community and provides essential access to things like broadband where we know that about a third of our community do not have access to broadband at home or the technology to use it. 

So, thinking about how the library supports that. We have hundreds of computers that are open for people to use on a regular day. Now, of course we’re talking right now in the middle of the pandemic and things are a little bit different. Today is the first day, we’re talking on June 22nd, today is the first day that we are welcoming community members into the library to use our computers. That was something that was a high priority for me, knowing what inequity looks like in our communities and how important it is for people to get back in. Not just for educational use, but for people that are applying for jobs, people that are applying for unemployment, we really wanted to get computers online so we’re testing out a handful of spaces today to do that.

LS: The need now, in some ways, is even greater for some of those resources that you guys are offering. I’d like to step back to a couple of months ago and  trace all the way back to now. That moment that you had the thought, “Wow, we might need to shut down the physical space of the libraries,” and then the process of how you began to reopen access to resources, what kind of innovations you guys made to get to this point now. Tell me a little bit about what was going through your head.

JK: I think back to March 11th, which was the day of the WHO declared this a global pandemic and I was in the board room with my executive leadership team talking about what are our plans, and I said, “Frank, listen you know based on what we’re hearing, we’re going to have to close down the library, it’s a matter of when not if.” And so, we really wanted to get out ahead of it as quickly as possible, knowing that if we had waited to close a couple weeks after that was to lose some of those benefits you get from closing, that reduced exposure. 

I think about the library and a number of places now, I think, incorrectly stated the libraries are low risk places, but it’s a pretty high risk place. We see here at Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, we see over 3 million people a year throughout all of our 20 locations. That’s quite a bit of traffic and a lot of that time people are spending in the library, and spending time there and they’re not just coming and leaving like a grocery store. So, we knew that we were going to have to close. It is always an incredibly hard thing to close, to think about closing a public library. We try not to do it even during the worst of snowstorms here in Ohio, knowing how important it is for people to be able to get into our buildings and to use library resources. But, we knew we were going to have to close.

The closing part was the easy part. It was a lot of communication with staff and about why we were closing, and basically on March 14th we shut down at the end of the day. Bringing everything back online has proven considerably harder to do. In part, because we had a lot of work to do around negotiating with our staff. We have two labor unions here, wanted to make sure that how we brought people back online was equitable. We really didn’t want to lay off staff or furlough staff. We really wanted to keep our staff as whole as possible, so we were able to come to a pretty, I think, a pretty collaborative agreement where we all shared some sacrifice in addressing our loss of revenue. I guess I sort of skipped past that, but we’re looking at almost a four and a half million dollar loss of revenue this year because of the impact the pandemic has had on the Ohio economy. That’s one of the reasons why a number of our other colleague libraries have had to do layoffs or furloughs, but we took across-the-board cuts to our hours to kind of make up that difference. 

So, bringing library services online, the entire time we were closed people were using library services. Our digital downloads went through the roof. We had the highest number of online library card applications in the history of that service in April. I think we had probably close to a thousand people download or apply for new cards in April. So, we knew people were using library services and we knew that we could do the sort of curbside delivery kind of model where people can come and grab stuff from the front door. Those things are easy, but thinking about how you spin up an entire digital lab to put together online virtual programming, you all have done a lot of that with Midstory I think. You already had some of that experience in your back pocket, but how do we spin up a digital lab to support things like our Saturday morning programming that we started? So, basically putting library services online for people on Saturday mornings. How do we do the digital lab stuff, and then how do we get people in to use our computers and how do we retrofit all of our locations? 

Sometimes, there’s a little bit of impatience, and I think frustration, with how long it’s taken the library to open and I get that. I’m frustrated too at times, but it’s not like the local coffee shop that has one location. We’ve got 20 locations that are all different and spreaded throughout the county and 400 staff members. There’s a lot of considerations that we’ve had to take into account and kind of walking that reopening process as slowly as possible and responsibly, so that we can test and try what works and tweak our processes and see how things are working or not working. So, today is a big day for us to bring people in to use technology. We’ll see what of our processes are effective and which ones we need to rethink a little bit. 

LS: Are you guys, as I’m sure many libraries are, reconsidering policies and protocol for once you actually are able to welcome in fully the public? 

JK: Yeah, I think the biggest question for a lot of folks right now is whether or not people should be required to wear masks in the library and we certainly will be strongly requiring or strongly requesting people wear a mask. We know the science is there. The masks help reduce spread and it could potentially keep a second wave of this virus at bay. And so we’ll be strongly encouraging, if not requiring by the time this comes out, we may have to make the decision. So many of these decisions change day to day or hour to hour, so we may at some point in the near future require people to wear masks when they come into the library. And part of that is because our staff. They’re concerned for their own safety, they’re concerned for other community members’ safety and they’re the ones who are actually pushing us as administrators to think about requiring masks even though they’re the ones on the front line who will have to enforce it. That’s my biggest concern. We’ve seen so many unfortunate altercations between people wearing masks or not wearing masks and how politicized that’s become. So that’s one policy change that we’re thinking about, too. 

Additionally, we’re a place where kids, a lot of our branches are neighborhood branches where kids come after school or during summertime and spend time at the library with maybe their older sibling or if they’re an older youth by themselves, and we’re unfortunately having to think through what that looks like. We just cannot allow kids to be unattended in the library during this period. Which is heartbreaking for us, it’s not our typical operating procedures as a library to say that kids can’t come in by themselves. So that’s going to be a little bit of a culture shift for us, but we’re making those decisions all around safety and security for our community members. Especially those kids. 

LS: Absolutely. I’ve heard it said many times that in communities across the nation and sometimes in specific neighborhoods that the library can be one of the only accessible public spaces for some of these community members for them to go to, for them to gather, for them to have resources, or like you mentioned have access to computer or Internet. Of course as you know in our community as you mentioned a little bit earlier, we do struggle with some of those issues. Whether it’s poverty or homelessness or other inequalities, have you seen a rise in people requesting resources, or have you guys adjusted the way you’re functioning to be able to still address those needs even though the public spaces aren’t open?

JK: Yeah, that’s a really good point because we have so many meeting rooms that are used thousands and thousands of times throughout the year. We said at the top of this discussion that the libraries are in the community business, and so much of our meeting spaces are around gathering community members together to make important decisions around their communities, or to enjoy each other’s company in a book club or those sorts of things. And so, it’s hard for us to not have our meeting rooms open, knowing that it’s such a valuable resource for our community. That said, we’re trying to figure out different ways that we can engage our community members, whether that’s partners, we’re still hosting and connecting kids to meals at our branches, at a number of branches, to provide meals for kids in those neighborhoods. We’re thinking through, I’ll be glad when we’re able to open up and allow people into our meeting rooms, but right now logistically, we’re using those meeting rooms to quarantine materials that come in. So, when something gets returned, we’re quarantining it in a room for 72 hours before it goes back into circulation so that we can make sure that the materials are as safe as possible to circulate. 

The inability to host the community members for difficult important conversations, especially think about a time right now when we’re talking as communities around police brutality, around public safety, or on policing around racism and structural inequality, the public library is a perfect platform for those kinds of conversations to be happening. And it’s a little bit heartbreaking to me that we can’t be doing that. As a community we can’t even be gathering to have some of those discussions, but throughout this entire pandemic I’d talk to our staff about how when we come out on the other side of this that our public library is going to be a really valuable tool to help our community rebuild, to help us come back together. That’s one of the reasons why I think we’re trying to take so many of these steps about reopening seriously and to do it very deliberately and intentionally so that people can tell that we put some thought into what it means to be as safe as possible when we reopen.

LS: You bring up a really good point, too. Obviously, with what’s going on in the world right now and in our nation, there are multiple crises happening at once, or at least, ones that are exposing systemic issues. Whether it’s in our public health systems, or in our culture or society or whatever that is. How have these kinds of coinciding crises affected the way you guys look at the work you’re doing? Has it caused any changes in the ways that you’re functioning or the ways that you’re outputting programming or materials? 

JK: Yeah, for sure. We’re trying to, and libraries across the country are trying to provide reading lists and other ways for people to engage around structural inequality, structural racism and we have a black lives matter page and resource page on our website as well that helps people get access to some of those resources, and some book clubs, and we have digital downloads that are unlimited for people to use. Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” is available for everyone in our community to listen to as an audiobook right now via the public library, but you bring up a question about what kinds of changes we are making, and honestly one of the big changes that we announced last week. 

We’d intended to have public safety officers dressed in uniform at a number of our locations and the rationale behind that as this sound and we made those decisions over years and years and years of experience with the community and with our contracted public safety officers. But we made a decision to remove those uniforms at those locations and to put together a work group that will take a look at what public safety looks like in the public library moving forward. 

And it might not mean more officers. It may mean those plain clothes officers, it may mean bringing mentors into the library to help kids, engage kids after school. It may mean bringing a social worker into the library where a number of our public library colleagues have done that as well to help deal with, whether they’re talking about people experiencing homelessness, and people experiencing mental health challenges or even drug addiction. Those are things that police are often brought in to deal with, but they’re not necessarily, they didn’t become police officers to deal with those sorts of things, and they don’t necessarily have the same skill set that a social worker would have. So we’ll be thinking through some of those things moving forward as what, how do we as an institution really live up to our values of being welcoming, the idea of trying to maintain public safety. We want people to feel safe in our buildings, but at the same time we don’t want people to necessarily feel like they’re policed or being monitored.

I say all that with the background that I’ve spent a lot of time with our public safety manager really ensuring that the officers that we bring on board, that we contract with, are living up to library values. They’re engaging kids. They know the community members where they’re working. So I feel really proud of that, but the fact of the matter still stands that they’re still uniformed officers and there’s a certain amount of symbolism and there’s a lot of history that goes along with that. 

LS: You know as with again libraries everywhere and I’m sure you’re connected in some of those conversations that people within those systems are having. Looking forward right I mean there’s so many challenges that we’re facing now you know in many different realms. And I’m sure there are conversations happening around where libraries are going whether it’s addressing some of these needs you were just talking about, whether it’s how libraries play a different role after, post COVID-19 or continuing to live with COVID-19. Of course, increased inequalities and disparities because of the public health crisis, increased need for some of these resources. What are some of the biggest challenges you think libraries are facing as we move forward in the next couple months? 

JK: One of the things, that really, that I spent a lot of time talking with our staff and our leadership team throughout these past couple months is the idea of really focusing on what our strengths are as an organization, as an institution. The public library is a place that has tended to be a place where we put a bunch of stuff that hasn’t been dealt with elsewhere or otherwise. And so, though the scope of the library’s work has expanded and expanded and expanded to the point where you wonder, is this really work that the public library should be doing? And so it’s given us a good platform or a good catalyst for us to think about what are the things that we maybe should drop, what are the things that might be done better by another organization, another institution. So part of that is our own programming. We do programming at the library, but there are so many other strong organizations in the community that know that area much better, know a specific area much better than we do. 

So we’ll be doing a lot more with engaging our community partners around programming. We already have a pretty good relationship with a lot of organizations. You think about the Metro Parks, Imagination Station, the art museum, the opera and the symphony. Some of those quality of life culture institutions that we can work with. Bringing them in and contracting with them for programming. I’m pleased to. I would like to see… I think we’ll see curbside delivery will stick around for a little while. People like that and it’s an efficient way for people to help us circulate materials. I’m heartened, too, that as much as we all tend to have this sort of virtual meeting fatigue. I’m heartened, too, that so many people have gotten used to that technology in ways that they had not been before and so it’s forced us to use these platforms. And it gives us an opportunity, I think, as public libraries to continue that and engage people who can’t come to the buildings to attend a library event. Who may not live locally, but are concerned or are interested in local issues. 

Having this virtual platform allowing us to do more of that is exciting and we’ll probably continue that for our authors programs. It gives us access to a whole different slate of authors that may have not traveled through Toledo, but we can get them in a virtual program. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity, a lot of potential and I think that it’s going to be incumbent upon us as an organization to think. Once we’re able to step back and not just be thinking about the logistics of what it means to reopen our library, we’re already thinking about work groups at the library here, thinking about what programming looks like at the Lucas County Public Library and moving forward how we support that. And part of that is going to be focusing on what we do to help promote success in our communities. A lot of that can be around basic literacies. And I’m not talking just about reading, but I’m talking about helping our community with financial literacy, health and wellness literacy or digital technology literacy. Those sorts of things that’s been part of our work and we’ll continue that work. And I think doubling down on what is the most effective work that we can do for our institution or for our community to improve our community’s standing. 

LS: And we know historically that our library system here has been pretty well supported by the community, by the state and we’re incredibly blessed to have this in this region. But of course, as you probably know, there are a lot of library systems across the U.S. that are really struggling or were already struggling before COVID-19 happened. And now as you mentioned with budget cuts, with the financial strain, of course with layoffs and furloughs happening. I mean what’s the way forward for maybe some of these systems especially since our system here has come out? Maybe we’re not on the other end yet, but hopefully close to it. We’ve come out, I think, with some progress happening as you had mentioned. What’s the way forward for other library systems across the nation? 

JK: I have some real concerns. I think you’re right. I have concerns about some of these systems around the country, could be smaller library systems, it could be rural, it could be urban systems that I have concerns that their community says, “You know what? We haven’t had a public library for the past three months and maybe that’s fine,” which is one of the reasons I think so many libraries have really doubled down on how we engage our communities virtually as much as possible. That’s why we saw digital downloads and access to our online resources go through the roof. 

I think it would be short-sighted for communities to say just because we didn’t have a public library for a few months, we probably don’t need it. There are so many things as we talked about at the top of this conversation that libraries provide a really valuable part of social infrastructure. And one of the things we’ve learned through this pandemic is how we’ve seen our society laid bare some of these huge gaps in social infrastructure for our communities and the library is just one part of that net where we can kind of help bridge that gap for individuals that don’t necessarily have the kind of access to power, access to equity or access to some money. So we’ve spent a lot of time really making the case for why libraries are important during the pandemic and we’ll continue to do that on the other side of this. 

There’s a reason why public libraries have been around forever. We’ve lasted through all sorts of different media transitions. You know, people years, 10, 15, 20 years ago we’re saying, “With the Internet’s here, we don’t need the public library anymore,” and I think we’ve seen how that’s not entirely true. And there’s a whole lot of ways that the library delivers important value to our communities that you can’t just Google.

So I think it’s consistently about engaging your community and having that advocacy with the individuals making decisions around funding. So we talk a lot about how our relationships with our legislators both here at the local level, the state level and the federal level. We’re always talking to them about the work that we’re doing whether it’s about helping people skill up for new jobs, whether it’s about helping small businesses get access to resources that they might not be able to afford on their own, but we can do collectively through the public library. So we’re always having those conversations throughout the year to reinforce how important the public library is to the fabric of our communities so that when it comes to times like this where we’re all in a crisis or when it comes time to make decisions around funding that we’re not coming in through the door without ever having had any of those discussions with our legislators. They already get how important the public library is so we’re not starting from zero. And I think that’s part of, as I talk to colleagues around the country, that’s part of one of the most important things that we do as leaders and public libraries is tell the story to our communities and to the people making decisions around funding. 

Libraries will not go anywhere; they will change. And I think one of the things that’s really amazing about working in public library and one of the reasons I was so happy to come here is that libraries are so rooted in tradition, but yet they still manage to mold and adapt and evolve to changing expectations of our community in a way that doesn’t lose that tradition, which is just really hard to think. It’s amazing to think about an organization that can pivot and adapt to community needs without losing that entire tradition that came before it.

LS: Right and crises like these in some ways, they catalyze the evolution. They force us to adapt quickly and something that you know we at Midstory, we’re always talking about is how can we continue to use even crises as opportunities, ways for us to innovate, ways for us to, yes, to expose some of the weaknesses, but be able to move forward from that in a positive, in a positive way, something that has momentum. You mentioned a little bit earlier in the conversation about things like digital literacy, things like relying more on technology that may have continued use or impact even post COVID-19. What are some of those changes that you’ve seen whether it’s just in the way your staff works, in the way the library functions, in the resources it offers to the communities? What are some of those things that are going to stick? What are some of those processes and adaptations that you’ve realized, “Wow! You know this is something we could have been doing and will continue to do much longer after the pandemic”? 

JK: Yeah. I think the virtual programming, the online programming, that provides access to a library’s talent and expertise, regardless of where you or what your means are is going to be here for a while. I do think the big challenge ahead of us and it’s one that is around that digital divide or on access to broadband. And we have yet as a society dealt with that challenge effectively I don’t think. And we saw that starkly when schools closed and all of a sudden, you have students who have broadband at home, who are excelling, who are able to get into those classes and take the classes online. And then you have those who don’t. And they call that the… we talk about the summer slide where kids aren’t reading throughout the summer or where they’re not in class in the summer and our summer reading program is intended to kind of counter that. So now we’ve got this pandemic slide right where kids are not able to access technology. 

We had people, we tried to let people know about this, but we had Wi-Fi on in our building so that people could come into the parking lot and use the Wi-Fi even if our buildings weren’t open. That’s not a solution to the digital divide. Right? And that’s a band-aid. A lot of libraries loan mobile hotspots to community members. That also is, I think, a little bit of a band-aid. Until we acknowledge that broadband access is a utility and it’s as important to some, it’s as important to the success of families as electricity and water in their homes. So until I think we come to grips with that, that’s going to be a huge challenge for us as a library, as an institution and it’s a role that I think we can play maybe whether it’s bringing together private and public interests to have this discussion to figure out what those challenges are or how we might solve that problem, but it’s the one that’s on our horizon. I think it’s one that we really need to deal with in the not-too-distant future. We’re already too late and we should have, you know, should have dealt with this and I think we may try some things here at the public library that will help us do that whether it’s partnerships with local Internet service providers whether it is us loaning hot spots. I know that local school systems are doing that for some of their students and their families who need access, but I think as a whole we should all have access. It’s already, the technology is already a hurdle, but without that access, it’s almost insurmountable it feels. 

LS: Right. And I know that you know many school systems obviously in the spring had gone to remote learning and we’re already dealing with an accessibility to the internet or technology and of course that was really emphasized more once they went digital. And some districts are even looking at partial if not complete digital for summer programs, but also fall so I know that’s a huge issue. I mean I know when I drive by the library branches, I do see people out in the parking lots. I do see people huddled around the sides of the buildings. It’s definitely a real issue here, but I’m glad to hear that there’s real conversation happening around it and that there are steps hopefully to move forward to address it. Now that we’ve really seen the impact in our community as well. What a full, but maybe short time you’ve had so far as the library’s executive director. 

JK: It was not, yeah… being appointed in August of last summer, this is… And for those who don’t know, I moved into my role after our director suddenly passed away last year and so dealing with two, three, four major crises and happening in our community over the past year. So a friend of mine was saying recently, he’s been a director for much longer than I have at the DC Public Library in Washington, saying that the last three months have been his hardest three months as a director. So I have some amount of optimism that we’ve dealt with this early on, but I know we have a ton of work ahead of us and I think as I said the library is and as you were saying there are opportunities buried in these tragic situations that we’re in right now whether its opportunities and sort of optimism that we’re now having conversations around structural inequality, that we need that we may not have reached the certain level of mainstream discussion today that they should have been in the last 10, 20, 30 years. And same thing with the pandemic, how do we think about the challenges we felt while all these institutions were closed and how do we address those moving forward? It’s a lot of work, but I think like I said the public library is uniquely positioned to help our communities move through some of these uncharted territory. 

LS: Absolutely. Well thank you so much for being with us today Jason. It was a pleasure. 

JK: I appreciate it. Thanks so much. it’s great talking with you. 

LS: As the world shifts, public institutions are shifting too, of course, at differing speeds. As libraries play such a crucial role as public resources and gathering spaces in realms like civic engagement, social discourse and accessibility, the conversation around system level innovation and change is more important than ever. Thanks for watching and as always stay safe, stay healthy and stay human.


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