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LI's libraries a vital resource

Hempstead Library offers Wi-Fi for people outside its

Hempstead Library offers Wi-Fi for people outside its building. Credit: John Roca

Long Island’s public libraries have always been crucial resources for their communities — centers for reading and gathering, learning new skills, staying in touch with neighbors, and finding romance novels, picture books, and ancient texts. At their best, libraries are the sturdy platform that offers everyone a boost. That platform was on profound display during the pandemic, a reminder of why we need strong, vibrant libraries in Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Even as the region’s libraries were forced to close or weather continued restrictions — including elongated ones as in Wyandanch — many moved quickly on their own and sometimes in concert to adapt their resources and services to a shutdown world.

That included expanded or strengthened digital offerings like the Pronunciator language learning app, or services, like one named hoopla, that unlock video streaming. Programming went virtual, from yoga classes to homework help. There was a deep interest in such events and services at a time when lots of people were stuck at home: Between 2019 and 2020, e-book checkouts from most Nassau libraries soared 54%, according to the Nassau Library System collective. The Suffolk Cooperative Library System reported e-book usage up more than 30%. Altogether, over 4 million e-books were checked out from the Island’s public libraries last year.

Libraries in the region are not a monolith. Different facilities charted their own paths, creatively. A sampling: Libraries in Merrick and Farmingdale offered home delivery. Oceanside provided virtual browsing where librarians walked the shelves using an iPad, and allowed patrons to "book" Zoom rooms. Center Moriches had a 24/7 locker system to allow patron requests to be picked up anytime.

Some libraries engaged directly with patrons’ health and wellness during this year of sickness: Copiague partnered with Island Harvest to be a food distribution site, and the Stony Brook Medicine Healthy Libraries Program, which brought faculty and students in areas like nursing and social work into libraries virtually and in person, made over 900 contacts with Suffolk patrons last year.

And many libraries took steps to expand their mission, adding more Wi-Fi capabilities so people without internet service at home could log on from a library parking lot. Some libraries loaned out hot-spot devices for portable Wi-Fi. Others built or revamped pavilions or outdoor spaces, bringing the library outside its doors for gardening classes, events, and contemplative reading.

Much of what Long Island’s taxpayer-supported libraries accomplished during the pandemic could and should remain. The repositories were flexible and quick to adapt to what patrons needed — a good philosophy for the future and a sign that libraries can be civic centers. They need our continued public support, to sustain their operations and remain the vital centers of so many communities. And they want our presence. What better time than now to see what your local library can do for you?

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.