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The New York Public Library is working on a plan to launch grab-and-go services for books and other materials — even as it’s buying more e-books, THE CITY has learned.

The dual approach reflects efforts to serve readers’ immediate needs while preparing for a technological transformation hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic, library officials said.

The NYPL is mulling having library cardholders order books online or by phone — and pick them up in a branch vestibule or on the sidewalk outside.

“As we begin to reopen our doors, we would do probably a small number of locations first and begin phasing in services,” said Brian Bannon, the Merryl and James Tisch director of The New York Public Library.

Public libraries remain closed in almost every major city in the country, with some exceptions. In central Ohio, for example, customers in cars can text or call the library to ask for a staffer to run out and put the materials in their trunks.

Many library officials across the country are waiting on an anticipated report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services for a blueprint for safely reopening. The federal group is testing books to see whether they are dangerous to handle after being returned.

In Ohio, returned books and other materials are being quarantined in holding tubes for three days.

“All of those things we are watching really closely,” Bannon said. “Our hope is that this study will provide guidance … in each of our unique circumstances.”

The Brooklyn and Queens systems are also looking at different ways to get books to patrons as the city slowly reopens. Nick Buron, chief librarian of the Queens Public Library, noted curbside pickup for patrons who drive could present challenges.

“It would probably cause problems having cars double and triple park in order to pick up materials,” he said.

Turning the Digital Page

Meanwhile, the city’s three library systems have all boosted their e-book collections to serve readers after branches shut in mid March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The libraries have seen a major increase in new borrowers and the number of e-books taken out across the city, according to library officials.

The NYPL, which covers Manhattan, Staten Island and The Bronx, has logged an over 250% increase in children’s book e-lending and a 110% hike in young adult e-lending. The system has also recorded a massive spike in digital library card sign-ups and a doubling in new users across all e-reading platforms.

The NYPL is currently using nearly all of its books budget for new digital items, according to Bannon.

The Brooklyn system has doubled its e-book collection to nearly 250,000 licenses, covering 152,000 titles, since the closure, according to system spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer.

The Queens library system has made a similar digital boost. “It really has paid off,” said Buron. “Not only are we seeing more items checked out, but we see more unique users using our material.”

E-book usage has risen in other spots in the country, according to reports.

Big Changes Seen

The quickly growing digital emphasis could revamp how libraries operate even after the branches are reopened in the age of social distancing, library officials said.

“It could be that this moment, with people being at home over a sustained period of time, may more rapidly accelerate the transition of people who historically preferred print, to getting them more comfortable with digital,” Bannon said.

A Queens Public Library branch. Credit: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In Queens, Buron vowed the e-book budget would remain at its current heightened level moving forward — if government funding remains steady.

“Some people who never got around to trying an ebook will continue doing it, much like Zoom meetings,” said Alan Inouye, the American Library Association’s senior director of public policy and government relations.

He pointed out librarians are now conducting story time and classes on Zoom.

Over the past several years, libraries have slowly been stocking up on digital items. But the majority of collections is still dominated by paper books and other physical materials.

That has enabled the libraries to serve people who don’t have internet access or own digital devices. Young readers have also not gravitated towards e-books as quickly as some initially predicted.

The city’s Department of Education has distributed thousands of iPads for remote learning preloaded with the NYPL’s SimplyE app and apps for the city’s other two library systems, according to library officials.

A 2017 Pew Research Center report cited “a notable digital divide,” based variously on age, education and income.

“Long term, we very much plan to invest in print materials and making sure that all New Yorkers have access to content in their preferred format,” Bannon said.

Libraries Stretched Thin

Library officials in Queens and Brooklyn said they also plan to go back to buying print books once their branches reopen.

E-books remain a relatively small portion of library collections because their licensing agreements with publishers are costlier than buying print books and typically expire after two years. Print books traditionally last longer, according to industry experts.

Some library officials want to use the e-book expansion to press publishers to negotiate better terms.

“If we cannot find ways to make our digital collections robust and lasting, including a return to perpetual access as an option, libraries will never be able to meet an ever-increasing demand and provide equity to the communities we serve,” Kelvin Watson, the director of Broward County Library, wrote in Library Journal.

Jessamyn West, a library technologist living in Vermont, was skeptical a deal could be struck, noting libraries are currently slammed dealing with the pandemic. Some library systems, she observed, have asked their staff to do contact tracing or assist homeless people during the pandemic.

“It would be a great time to band together and do some bulk purchasing if we weren’t all super busy trying to sanitize a f—–g paperback for curbside” pick-up, she said. “Part of the problem right now is that each individual library system is dealing with a different kind of crisis.”

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