ASHLAND – Just a few short weeks after Amanda Pena took over as director of the Ashland Public Library, the facility shut its doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since then, the new director has been challenged with finding ways to provide books and other materials to the community while putting her personal touch on the facility.
“My main concern was keeping my staff safe and my second concern was providing services to the community when the options are limited,” Pena said.
After being on the job for a few days, Pena was aware that the discovery of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., and then in Nebraska, would change things drastically at the library.
“We knew it was coming,” she said.
The library has traditionally based its schedule on the local school district’s calendar, and Pena did so in the case of the pending pandemic. When the school closed temporarily in mid-March, the library did as well.
“With the severity of the virus, we couldn’t be open either,” she said.
The closure was extended as the virus continued to spread into the county and communities. Pena had hoped to reopen on Aug. 24, but those plans changed as Pena received reports of a recent increase in local cases.
“We changed (our reopening date) because in the last two weeks there has been a dramatic rise in Nebraska,” she said.
Pena and her staff are taking things on a week-to-week basis now as they look forward to opening their doors to the public again sometime this fall. But safety is the most important issue for Pena, who has done extensive research on the length of time the coronavirus stays on books and other materials.
“We really want to provide services to the community, but I can’t guarantee their safety, especially when I can’t guarantee how long the virus stays on materials,” she said.
When the library closed four months ago, Pena immediately began looking at ways to continue to serve the community while keeping the public and her staff safe from the pandemic. The idea of a curbside pickup service began. Library patrons can reserve books, videos and other materials online, by email or by phone. The staff will gather the items and place them in a box in front of the library, where the public can pick them up without making contact with the staff. The times for curbside pickup are Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
“It’s worked pretty well, especially for avid readers,” Pena said.
The library has seen steady business in online checkouts because of the pandemic, Pena said. Approximately 470 customers went online to checkout books through Overdrive or Libby in the last month. Magazines can also be accessed digitally, she added.
While online checkouts have stayed steady, overall circulation numbers for the library are down, according to Pena. One reason is that Ashlanders like to walk through the library and check out the books on the shelves physically, rather than digitally.
“Ashland in general is a very big browsing community,” she said. “They really like coming in and picking out their books.”
Pena took the job with several ideas in mind for programming and other aspects of the library, but they were put on hold when the pandemic began. When the library reopens, Pena has several plans in the works to achieve her main goal to engage the community even further in the library and what it offers.
“It’s very obvious that Ashland loves it’s library,” she said. “They wouldn’t have built such a beautiful building in the middle of the city if it wasn’t a priority.”
The new library opened in December 2015, replacing a former Carnegie library building that had served the community for over 100 years.
One of Pena’s projects is to create a community read program, where the entire community will read the same book and then discuss it. She is also looking at ways to engagement patrons online.
Pena would also like to expand on the makerspace equipment that former director Heather St.Clair had started gathering.
“The goal is to make one for the community,” she said.
In 2018, the library was one of 18 initial participants in Nebraska’s Library Innovation Studios: Transforming Rural Communities project to create makerspaces in public libraries throughout the state. The project brought equipment like 3D printers, a CNC router, sewing machine, Makerbot replicator and button/badge maker to Ashland and was greeted with enthusiasm by library patrons.
“The library can be a place where people can come and learn about (the equipment) and use it,” she said.
When the temporary program ended, St.Clair began working to obtain permanent equipment. A 3D printer was purchased recently and Pena said she hopes to add more equipment in the near future. Her plan is to revamp the computer room and use some of the space for the new equipment.
Pena said St.Clair spent about four hours speaking with her about the library and the community, giving the new director some idea of what to expect.
“She loved the community and she wanted to make sure that the library was still going to be a success,” said Pena.
Pena said she is grateful for the generosity of St.Clair and others she has met during her library career. She began working in libraries as a teenager while growing up in Temecula, Calif., located between Los Angeles and San Diego.
She moved to Portland, Ore. when she was 21 and began working in a library in Hilsboro, a suburb of Portland. She was there for 14 years, doing a wide variety of jobs.
“I have a background in circulation, but I have done pretty much everything in a library, having had such a long career in libraries,” she said.
While working in Oregon, Pena had the opportunity to work with at-risk youth at a juvenile detention and rehabilitation center, something that became very close to her heart.
“My biggest passion and the thing that I love to do and what’s kept me in the library career is working with the community that is at risk,” she said.
She also worked with the immigrant population in the Portland area, arranging two large naturalization ceremonies that had special meaning to her. Her mother is from England and her father is from Mexico.
“I’m a first generation American, so it’s something I really hold dearly,” she said.
Pena moved to Nebraska to be close to her partner’s family in Omaha. She and Joshua Price have a two-year-old daughter, Rose, and they wanted her to grow up near family.
When she saw the advertisement for the library director position in Ashland, Pena knew she was ready to become the person in charge, and has enjoyed the job despite the challenges of the pandemic.
“It’s been really fun,” she said. “Although I haven’t been able to get out in the community like I wanted.”
She has been able to keep the library staff employed throughout the pandemic, which is a great accomplishment in her mind.
“My workers have done a fantastic job during this time,” she added.
Pena and her staff look forward to the day they can open the library doors and let the public back in.
“The people are our jobs,” she said. “We really miss helping people.”
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