Luke Thompson is used to working the technology desk at the Evanston Public Library (EPL). He described it as being a bartender, a social worker, and a therapist all at once. But now, working through the COVID-19 pandemic, he has at various times felt like just a face on a screen.
“It’s difficult to establish relationships with people, I suppose, because you’re not seeing them daily,” Thompson said.
What Mr. Thompson misses most is the social aspect of his work, what he considered one of the biggest responsibilities of the job, enjoying the company of visitors. The regulars are often seniors who he’s formed a connection with.
“It’s that they’re just completely lonely. Before, they would just hang out at the library all day,” he said. “So they’ll have long conversations with me. And that’s often the only conversation they’ll have that day.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything about the community, including how the Library operates within it. While the Library has reopened again, visits are time limited, and staff and patrons need to maintain their distance. Many seniors avoid going out altogether. Most community members have never been so far apart.
But the Library is more than just a physical space – it is a community within itself, a community dedicated to keeping Evanstonians connected and strong. And with the help of virtual programming, technology, and committed staff, its work has continued.
Social distancing has forced everyone to become used to a digital day-to-day life, and the transition for most has been anything but easy. It is Sergio Gonzalez’s job to help fix that.
As a tech trainer at the Library, his personally tailored lessons, available in English or Spanish, can cover anything from connecting to the internet to constructing a website. These sessions can no longer occur physically. However, with the help of video conference tools like Zoom, Mr. Gonzalez’s work, more important now than ever, has carried on. Many people with whom he has worked with were uneasy in a virtual environment at first, but Mr. Gonzalez said they just needed time to adjust.
“They’re getting more comfortable, because they know we can help them,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that they are not here.”
Having to adapt to a world that functions virtually is a challenge everyone has to face in the pandemic’s new normal, but Mr. Gonzalez said the Library can be a valuable learning space for those who lack digital literacy.
“This is the most important thing we need to share with them,” he said. “They’re going to make mistakes with us, but they’re going to be ready in the moment they really need it.”
“It’s good because we are changing the way people think about the Library. … It’s not about books, it’s not about e-books, it’s about the service that we provide, our professional service,” Mr. Gonzalez said.
The Library’s duties range far beyond providing basic information. One of its most important tasks in this time has been connecting Evanstonians to essential services and benefits.
In mid-August, the Illinois Housing Development Authority opened the online application for a new $5,000 Emergency Rental Assistance program for those impacted by the pandemic. However, said Miguel Ruiz, supervising librarian of the newly-opened Robert Crown Library Branch, the digital literacy barrier posed a problem for many vulnerable households, especially families who spoke English as a second language or not at all.
So the Library took steps to ensure that this crucial support reached those who needed it most, Mr. Ruiz said. In partnership with the nonprofit Evanston Latinos, the tech-savvy and bilingual Robert Crown Branch Library staff provided in-person assistance for Evanstonians in the application process.
“That was a big deal, because it was a short notice announcement from the IHDA,” Mr. Ruiz said. “And so we had to think fast and figure out how to support our families.”
The Robert Crown Library Branch has also been hosting education sessions for community cohorts on topics like health, finance, technology use, and more. Mr. Ruiz said he has been seeing a lot of positive feedback from members of the public, such as the senior citizens who routinely visit for tech support, access to a computer or even just a place to be a part of the community – safely.
“They really appreciate having us there while we’re open for our limited hours, especially because we’re taking really seriously these precautions – social distance, always wearing masks, you know. They feel comfortable in our space.”
Mr. Ruiz said there has been a bit of a silver lining in the current state of affairs: a newfound focus on fostering a virtual environment and exploring the potential of online interaction. However, this focus has also brought to light signs of a digital divide that prevents some community members from keeping up.
“I think [the pandemic] has allowed us to think differently about the services we provide,” Mr. Ruiz said. “But I think it is a challenge, especially when you’re talking about how you provide services in a virtual space when in fact, some families don’t have access to the internet at home, or don’t have access to a computer, or have language barriers.”
Librarian Heather Norborg said the digital divide in Evanston is very real.
“That’s an issue that the Library has been working on, aware of, and trying to address for many years,” she said. “But with this pandemic, and the fact that everyone is isolated and able to interact only in online spaces and virtually, it’s shown us even more where the gaps are and how some people are being left behind.”
The Library has been working to combat these technological barriers in the community, lending Wi-Fi hotspots and some Chromebooks to Evanston Public Library card holders to connect more households across town to the internet. The Chromebook lending is about to increase with new initiatives, including a laptop vending machine at Robert Crown, to make them more widely available this fall.
Connecting people has also been an important duty for the Library. When the risks of COVID-19 broke up meetings of the Foster Senior Club, composed primarily of Black seniors, the Library dispatched tech workers to host their weekly meetings on Zoom, provided equipment to those who needed it, and helped move that valued community space to a virtual environment.
“It’s a group that we were visiting with previously in person,” Ms. Norborg said. “I think that the way that we helped solve their tech issues was very helpful to them. … Being able to maintain social connections – that’s so important for everyone’s well-being.”
Another project in development, targeted specifically for those the pandemic has put out of work, is job-searching kits. Part of a partnership between the Library and National Able Network, an employment assistance nonprofit, Ms. Norborg said this program will provide the tools a job seeker needs to access the internet at home and utilize test prep or job readiness resources in their search.
“We have about 170 active partnerships with organizations, other city agencies, nonprofits, schools, etc.,” Ms. Norborg said. “I think that this crisis has just shown how vital those connections are, and the importance of keeping them active.”
Mr. Thompson’s work has continued virtually as well. He assists George Lowman and Carolyn Young, volunteers who teach curious community members at the Library’s Thursday Tech Tutorials through the organization Wise Up: Aging with Attitude. The two-hour Zoom sessions focus on a range of areas in the digital world, such as navigating different smartphone operating systems, or learning how to run a Mac, or using iPhone cameras to their fullest potential. The sessions have been going on weekly during the summer, but will run twice a week in the fall.
Additionally, Mr. Thompson’s duties providing one-on-one tech support in the community have continued, now via phone support.
He has seen a huge amount of positive feedback from those he has helped, but he thinks there are more people out there who could benefit from the Library’s resources. There’s so much to the role of the Library’s staff that goes unnoticed or underutilized, he said.
“The Library’s offering all these great services around a facility with computers and other technology and … I think people just don’t know about it,” he said.
Adds Executive Director Karen Danczak Lyons, “There’s so much more available at the Library than just books. If you want to check it out, all you have to do is ask.”
More information about all the resources and services available at Evanston Public Library is available by visiting epl.org or callin g 847-448-8630.