Ottawa Public Library supports the community through pandemic

The Ottawa Public Library’s (OPL) many services and its importance to the local community has never been higher since the onset of the coronavirus last year. The OPL has continued to adapt and serve families and other clients during the pandemic by reaching out to them using a combination of adapted traditional services and innovative new ones. While eBooks and audiobooks are an important part of this, OPL has used creative and outside-the-box thinking to ensure as many citizens as possible can access their services.

The OPL has become an important lifeline in the national capital for tens of thousands of people who have used their books and other online products and offerings to cope as they navigate their way through the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The impact of the OPL in the community can be measured in multiple ways. On January 12th, they announced that they had reached a record-breaking 1.8 million digital book checkouts in 2020. In a year with building closures, storefront shutdowns and lockdowns and limited recreational activities in public spaces due to COVID-19, OPL services including those related to eBooks and audiobooks have skyrocketed in popularity.

E-Books and audiobooks have been available at OPL for several years through online portals like Overdrive and its companion reading app, Libby, which provide 24/7 virtual access to the library’s collection.

"The Ottawa Public Library is pleased to be part of the Million Checkout Club as it shows how active our customers are in using digital formats for reading – and how if anything, customers have valued access to library services more during the COVID pandemic,” said Danielle McDonald, CEO of Ottawa Public Library. “It's been a challenging year, but we have been able to provide the most sought-after titles for anyone in Ottawa to download and enjoy.”

This record-breaking growth is not limited to Ottawa. OPL is one of 102 public library systems worldwide that surpassed one million checkouts. OPL’s digital circulation places it in the top 40 public library systems worldwide.

E-books and audiobooks are not the only way OPL has supported the  community through the pandemic. New databases and online content on topics from genealogy to used cars to knitting instructional videos, among many others, have been added for library members to use free of charge. Instructional videos following the Ontario public school curriculum are also available for students studying at home.

OPL programming that previously took place in person has pivoted to virtual programming. Attendance has increased 3x compared to in-person programs, and recordings of the sessions posted to YouTube or Facebook afterwards have gained another 50,000 views.

Such programming is vital during a pandemic, Catherine Seaman, OPL’s Division Manager of Customer Experience, said. “We’re able to offer programming for people who can’t, or don’t want to, leave their homes.” Virtual programming for older adults at higher risk for COVID-19 has been particularly popular.

After the pandemic, according to Seaman, the library will shift to a hybrid model that combines virtual programming with in-person programming. Though there are major benefits to real-world programs as an opportunity for people to get together, the “audience we can reach is so much wider by offering virtual programming.”

In-person programs are also important because there are accessibility barriers to accessing online content that do not exist in person: not everyone has the smartphone or computer required to attend. This technology barrier emerged early in the pandemic, in library programming and in many other important arenas. OPL has been working to help people solve these problems.

“We recognized that was a potentially huge need in a community” Seaman said. When virtual presence became a necessity, not only for library services, but attend school, apply for jobs, and even appear in court, access to technology became a major problem for vulnerable communities.

To help people facing this struggle, OPL partnered with organizations that worked closely with vulnerable populations in Ottawa and provided Chromebooks and internet hotspots to members of a community that otherwise would not have access to it.

OPL also eliminated late fees as of January first in a bid to make library services as accessible as possible. “It’s a huge move to making our library services equitable to everyone in the community,” Seaman said, and the best move the library could make, especially during a pandemic, in order “to be as socially equitable as we could.”