More than places to read, libraries can assist in economic recovery

More than places to read, libraries have been at the forefront of economic recovery after events like Superstorm Sandy and the great recession, says Long Branch Free Public Library Director Tonya Garcia.

“In areas of job searching, we know after the recession that we helped enormously with resume writing, unemployment claims. If you need help filing claims we do that, and most libraries will help you do that as well. Finding health care, child care, housing, all of that,” Garcia said.

Libraries are also helping small businesses access loans during the shutdown. So with the critical role they play in the community, there’s growing frustration that libraries remain sidelined even as other sectors are reopening.

“What I’m frustrated now with the state is, we have a system of picking winners and losers and it’s not healthy. So how do we argue that you can’t do curbside for a library but you can for a restaurant or retail. It makes no sense, and libraries play such an important role in educating our youth, educating our history. I’ve have students who rely on libraries to study and to learn, to look at past textbooks. I mean, this should be a no-brainer,” said Sen. Vin Gopal.

Neptune Library started a curbside program where customers could pick up books they checked out online. But the state stopped it saying libraries would be included in Phase 2 of reopening, and with appropriate safety measures in place.

Ranjna Das helped put forward some recommendations.

“Some basics, wearing masks would be minimum. When you’re handling books they should be wearing gloves. When you get to the point where we’re dealing with the public, keeping the social distancing 6 feet from the public,” Das, director of the Burlington County Library System, said.

Pick-ups would be scheduled 15 minutes apart and books can’t be rented again for 72 hours. But as long as libraries are closed, she says the gaps between the haves and have-nots continue to widen.

“One of the things that we’ve noticed during the pandemic is there was a real digital divide in the community that we’ve always known about. But now with libraries closed, the public is not able to enter the libraries and take advantage of the computers and the internet access that we normally provide to them,” Das said.

The digital divide can especially impact kids who don’t have access to learning without the needed technology. In Long Branch, the program Fade to Books is helping to bridge the gap.

“We put the pop-up libraries into barber shops, so that will help us get at least some summer reading out to the communities,” Garcia said.

Das said they’ve submitted their plans to the state and are waiting for approval to reopen. They expect that to happen sometime in July.