IRON RANGE — As the state’s Stay-At-Home order continues, books use has skyrocketed as libraries remain closed.
The Arrowhead Library Service (ALS), with member libraries across the Arrowhead region, is doing what they can to support families by expanding digital offerings and continuing Mail-A-Book services.
“With access to physical library materials dramatically reduced for most of our patrons, I wanted to let everyone know that additional content is being added to Overdrive,” wrote ALS executive director Jim Weikum in a April 1 email sent to all member libraries. Overdrive/Libby apps offer digital collections owned by ALS.
Weikum explained that additional funds were given to the selection cohort in March and April and this content is already showing up on the app. With the Bookmobile being off the road, Weikum used $600 of the gas budget to purchase audiobook series this week.
“Also, we have taken some funds out of the ALS budget that were to be used for another purpose and turned over $2,500 to the ALS Mail-A-Book and Bookmobile coordinators to select Overdrive content based on their experience with their patrons.”
The email also mentions the possibility of state funds becoming available for also increasing digital content.
In a follow-up email Tuesday, Weikum explained to the Mesabi Daily News: “All of this is in response to every public library in the region being closed and trying to make sure that library materials are available to as many people as possible. We are also very mindful of the issue of many users not having decent (if any) broadband access, which is why we are so fortunate to have been able to keep our Mail-A-Book service operating so people have access to physical materials.”
Mail-A-Book is a program available to rural and homebound residents. Weikum said they have discussed opening this service to everyone, but he is hesitant to start a program that ALS would inevitably have to take away. This would also present the three challenges of a limited collection size, increased postage costs and staffing.
The focus is now on digital content.
“In the last one to two years we've been buying more audio content as that circulation has grown faster than e-book usage,” Weikum explained. “It is a challenge as audio titles can be considerably more expensive to acquire than e-books.”
Virginia resident Amber Bryant commented over Facebook Tuesday that she loves Libby, the new Overdrive app.
“I read ebooks. Expanding the collection would be good,” she said, adding it would be great to have unlimited access to titles and not have waitlists.
Although ALS doesn’t have funds for unlimited access, they have continued to invest in digital content.
ALS has a seven county region and at the beginning of April, Weikum sent an update to every member of the Minnesota House and Senate who have districts that touch the ALS service area, as well as each of the commissioners in the seven counties. This update was also sent to the Minnesota’s U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith and Congressman Pete Stauber.
In the letter, Weikum reviewed ALS resources and reported the increasing usage statistics.
“Our staff are taking extra precautions when handling materials, but Mail-A-Book is still open,” wrote Weikum in this letter.
The Mail-A-Book program, which physically mails books to rural and homebound patrons, saw a huge increase in lending between February and March of this year. In one month, there was a 26 percent increase and a 13 percent increase comparing March 2020 to March 2019.
Annually, usage increases 12-20 percent since ALS started providing services through Overdrive in 2007. This year, March over February usage increased 12 percent, representing a yearly increase in one month’s time.
“We have accelerated spending down our annual materials budget to add more digital content in a short time, and we have taken funds from other budget programs to add even more content,” reads the update from Weikum. “Discussions are underway with staff at the Minnesota Department of Education to redirect other funds toward this high demand service.”
Along with Overdrive/Libby apps, ALS also offers electronic magazines through the RBdigital platform. ALS offers 124 different magazines and has experienced a 17 percent increase in March over February.
To access these platforms, a valid ALS library card is required. To meet this demand, ALS has made changes to the application process.
“ALS set up a library card application form on our website to allow people to easily apply for a card if they don’t have one or can’t remember if they already have one, and we have reallocated staff to complete the library card registration process as quickly as applications are received. We immediately contact applicants with their library card number, and a physical card is quickly mailed to them. We’ve already completed dozens of such applications to ensure that area residents can access electronic resources from home, work, or their digital devices.”
Accessing the majority of these resources requires internet access. Although the doors of the libraries are closed, the free public Wi-Fi in most libraries, and ALS headquarters building in Mountain Iron, are accessible near the buildings without needing passwords.
Although business is not as usual at ALS, support services are still in place to help library patrons and staff. Libraries are also still ordering and processing new material and since March 15, about 2,421 items have been added to the region-wide collection.
The ALS website is www.alslib.info and from there you can access digital resources, library card applications and Mail-A-Book service. ALS also has a Facebook page and blog where resources and news are shared.