By: Deborah Hakes, Director of Communications and Marketing, Georgia Public Library Service
For the 35,000 residents of Harris County, Georgia, the local library has been a lifeline during COVID-19 closures. The two-year-old facility is a focal destination point in Hamilton, a rural town with around 1,100 residents located just north of Columbus, Georgia.
“To say libraries are still offering a vital service during the pandemic would be an understatement,” said Ryan Willoughby, the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity of Georgia, Inc. “There is only one public WiFi spot where I live, and that is the Harris County Public Library - for the entire county.”
During the statewide shutdown, Willoughby spent several hours a day using the library’s parking lot WiFi access in order to do his work.
A majority of Harris County does not have access to broadband Internet apart from unreliable cellular options, and broad swaths have no internet access at all. The library serves communities between Columbus and LaGrange, Georgia, and customers travel 20-30 minutes to reach the facility from either direction.
The biggest need for all three communities is high-speed internet and computer access. These needs were amplified during the COVID-19 shutdown.
“It pained me to know that on either side of me lived school-aged kids who had absolutely no options for being able to do their virtual schooling,” said Willoughby. “Each day, I saw a myriad of people passing through the library parking lot, many of them young people, just to use the Internet. It felt like we were living in the stone age, and the only place where it felt somewhat normal was the library.”
Besides providing 24/7 access to the parking lot WiFi, Harris County Public Library "kept the light on" during the shutdown through virtual programming on Facebook and YouTube. The library also continued virtual storytimes and created take-home kits focusing on crafting, travel, and cooking programs to help families stay active.
“We've heard from our customers how thankful they were that we continued to make a connection even if it was a virtual one,” said Affiliate Branch Manager Stephanie Green.
Willoughby also enjoyed the digital library services. “By implementing touchless procedures, I managed to borrow a number of films and watch them during my downtime in the pandemic,” he said. “I’m on a personal quest to watch every film on the AFI Top 100 and most of those can be found (for free!) at the library. Likewise, I regularly access electronic resources such as Hoopla and Libby.”
Harris County Public Library reopened its doors to the public on July 13 after providing curbside service for one month. Customers can use computers, browse the stacks, use the business center, and also enjoy curbside service.
Now that many Harris County schools are back in session virtually, Stephanie Green says the library has noticed high school students working under the patio to access WiFi.
“We want to welcome those students inside out of the Georgia heat,” she said. “We are slowly adding seats inside the building. We want people to come in as much as possible, but I also need library staff to be able to handle the additional duties such as sanitizing, in a timely manner, so that everyone is safe.”
For Willoughby, now that the library is open, he can engage in one of his favorite things to do again: taking his young daughter to the library on Saturdays to play and read.
“I believe by making education available for all and making it so easily accessible, libraries will truly change the world in ways no one else can,” said Willoughby.