A new chapter: Library missions evolving in Aurora and across the state while remaining a place to learn for free

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Stacks of books fill the ground floor of the Central Branch of the Aurora Public Library. Libraries now provide a litany of services beyond the Dewey Decimal System. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

By Carina Julig, Sentinel Colorado Staff Writer

The indelible image of the public library remains rooted in a now-prehistoric past: mountainous shelves of books, drawers of card catalogs and buildings full of quiet rooms.

Pretty much all of that has changed.

Over the decades, libraries have preserved their original function of being a home for books and periodicals while also becoming de-facto computer labs, cultural hubs and community resource centers, full of all types of services for people to access — all or free.

If you’re thinking that, in a digital world, a place filled with books that have pages that actually have to be tactically turned has become obsolete, literary and information specialists have news for you: it’s not like bound books are near the end. A Pew Research poll from January revealed that while 30% of Americans read e-books, printed books are by far still the most popular reads.

In both urban and rural Colorado, the work that librarians do has become more meaningful than ever. And that was never proven more than in the past two years, when like so many other public institutions libraries were forced to pivot on a dime and completely rethink how to operate.

“We had to become a lot more than just a book warehouse,” said Midori Clark, director of Aurora’s Library and Cultural Services department. 

Librarians are always thinking about how to evolve to best meet the needs of their communities, Clark said, but the pandemic threw that process into overdrive. She still remembers the phone call she got from her boss on Friday, March 13, 2020, when she was told that the library would be closing to the public the next day.

It was nothing that she or anyone else in the library system had ever anticipated experiencing. But by the following Monday, APL was holding its first virtual storytime and was transitioning as many of its services as possible online so it could still serve the community.

“Things were pretty fast, and we really wanted to react in a way that would continue to serve the community in a safe way,” Clark told The Sentinel in an interview. “A lot of libraries did not start that quickly, and I’m really proud that we were able to do that at APL.”

The library was fully closed with online programs only for four months and began offering curbside pickup of books in May. It reopened to the public over the summer of 2020 in an initially limited fashion, with building occupancy limits and time limits for patrons.

Throughout the pandemic the Colorado State Library, which operates out of the Department of Education, has held regular meetings of all of the state’s library directors to share strategies and brainstorm how to operate, which Clark said was invaluable. Libraries in the Denver metro area also held meetings for much of the pandemic to make sure their procedures were aligned, even if individual departments didn’t all make the same decisions.

The library is commonly used for it’s free access to the internet, which can be incredibly useful for many of the cities residents. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Many libraries in the Denver metro area did not open at all for much longer. Clark said that the initial decision to open back up was nerve-wracking, but it was clear that it was something the community badly needed.

 “We have a community that really needs library services in Aurora,” Clark said. “We knew that people were not going to risk their lives during the pandemic unless they really needed our services.”

The library was a vital resource for Aurorans who did not have home internet access — a population that grew during the pandemic — to apply online for unemployment benefits and other forms of government assistance. Along with internet access, many people needed assistance figuring out how to navigate the web of bureaucracy involved.

Lack of reliable internet access is often perceived as a rural issue, but there are many people in urban and suburban areas who don’t have their own high-speed internet connection either, which became a critical challenge during the pandemic.

The state of Colorado and Aurora Public Schools partnered with internet providers to offer free hotspots to low-income families, and APL also ended up assisting many local students with online learning. Senior citizens, particularly those living alone, were another hard-hit group. Going to the library gave them the opportunity to have at least limited human interaction, and be able to get online to talk to others via email or Facebook. Overall, computer usage at the library increased by 6% from 2020 to 2021.

The library gradually loosened its restrictions as time went on, doing away with occupancy limits and increasing hours to 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Saturday at all six branches, which continues today. Masks are currently recommended but not required following the expiration of the Tri-County Health Department’s indoor mask mandate.

Emery Adams, 8, left, and her sister Olive, 5, work on building a tic-tac-toe board out of Legos during a STEM-inspired workshop for elementary school aged students March 1 at the Aurora Library Central Branch. Libraries go beyond what was offered in the days of yore. Many now provide classes such as this one, as well access to the internet, a quiet place for a job interview through video chat, and even access to free legal advice and help with filing taxes. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

As Aurora and the state gradually exit from the pandemic and into a world where COVID-19 is endemic and not pandemic, APL is looking forward to offering more in-person programs and getting back into the new normal. However, it’s clear that some things will stick around. Online activities proved to be incredibly popular and gave the library the ability to connect to people it would never have been able to reach before, Clark said, a significant boon.

There was a 185% increase in program attendance once the library system moved its programming online, she said, one of the few positive surprises of the pandemic era. That came not just from people living in the Aurora area but from all across the country who were interested in what APL was doing — over 561,000 people overall in 2021.

Library programs include everything from book clubs, children’s storytime, assistance with tax preparation, craft tutorials and game nights a full list is available on the library’s website at auroragov.org/things_to_do/aurora_public_library. 

The library also offers printing services for a small fee, partners with outside organizations to offer things like theater and music classes and allows people to reserve private rooms for meetings and for studying.

“It has been fascinating to see the pivoting of offerings such as creating space for people to do job interviews from the library, entrepreneurs having  job-related meetings here, more hybrid (virtual and in person) programs and just the fact that despite the pandemic, last year we still got 365K visits and 1.1M checkouts,” library and cultural services spokesperson Abraham Morales told The Sentinel in an email.

That number of visits — an average of over 1,000 every day of last year — is actually a significant decline from pre-pandemic levels. In 2019, there were a whopping 1.2 million library visits. Numbers are trending up, however, which Clark viewed as an encouraging sign: there was a 12% increase in library visits from 2020 to 2021.

“I’m really excited about that because it just shows that people are returning to the library,” Clark said.

Along with hundreds of public institutions across the state, APL partnered with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to distribute masks to the public during the pandemic. To date the library has distributed over 40,000 free masks to community members, and is now offering COVID-19 testing kits as well.

City residents wait to receive free legal advice, which was being offered, March 1, at the Aurora Library Central Branch. The Aurora Library system offers numerous classes as well as opportunities such as this and free help with filing taxes. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

Becky O’Guin, a spokesperson for Tri-County, said that kind of work has been invaluable in standing up the public health response to the pandemic.

“Community organizations and libraries play an invaluable role in getting information and supplies out to the public,” she said. “We couldn’t do it without them, and we so appreciate them being willing to do that” on top of all their regular responsibilities.

Mask distribution and some other COVID-era programs will go away as the pandemic (at some point) becomes a thing of the past, but what will remain is a new sense of just how much the library is capable of.

“Even if all of the innovations don’t last, the process of how we were able to move so quickly, that’s now in place and we can always use that to respond to whatever need arises,” Clark said. “We have the confidence to serve our community well really no matter what happens because we’ve been through this together.”

Midori Clark poses for a portrait March 1 at the Aurora Library Central Branch. Clark is the Library and Cultural Services Director for Aurora Public Libraries. Portrait by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

APL operated a computer lab at the K-Mart

APL’s most exciting plan for the future is the opening of a seventh library location at Chambers Plaza, which is slated for sometime later this year. Before the pandemic started, plans were underway for it to open in 2020, but the coronavirus and associated construction and supply chain delays have pushed the date back.

The library originally had seven locations but was hard-hit financially by the 2008 recession. The city asked voters to pass a ballot measure that would fund libraries separately from the rest of the city budget, but it failed at the voting booth and in 2009 four of the seven libraries closed. Since then all of the branches except one in the Chambers area have opened back up. For a period of time in APL operated a computer lab out of a K-Mart in Chambers Plaza, but once the store closed that was gone too.

The slightly under 4,000 square foot library will be located on the corner with Colfax Avenue at 1551 N. Chambers Road, and is within walking distance of several APS schools, including Hinkley High School. Clark said the library hopes that the new location will be an asset as the school district and the city grapple with an increase in youth violence.

The new branch will cost around $96,000 to design and set up, and will be staffed by existing employees. The money comes from the city’s library impact fee, which is part of the 2019 capital impact fee supporting new growth in the city. Money is also being saved by using upcycled furniture from other libraries, including Arapahoe County’s Castlewood Library, which underwent a remodel but still had furniture in good condition. If any local businesses wanted to donate new furniture or other goods to the branch the library would be happy to take them, Clark was quick to note.

“Ever since I got here it’s been a dream to restore all of the seven libraries,” Clark said. “I’m really excited we’re able to do that.”

The library system is funded primarily through sales tax from the City of Aurora, which means it has fewer resources than libraries that are their own tax entities. In 2022 the city’s Library and Cultural Services department has a budget of $10.3 million, including $4.3 million for library facilities and services and $1.4 million for collections management.

During the pandemic the library cut two jobs that were already vacant and reduced its collections budget to make ends meet. Both of those positions were restored in 2022 and the city used money it received from the American Rescue Plan Act to supplement cuts to the materials budget.

“We’re back to where we were, which is really great,” Clark said.

She believes the fact that the Aurora Public Library has been able to not only survive but in some ways thrive during the pandemic is a testament to the unsung heroism of its roughly 100 employees, who showed up to work in person for months before a vaccine was widely available and kept everything running.

“It’s been extremely difficult at times to come to the library and serve the public because you have fears about your safety and health, but this library staff has continued to come into the building and serve the public throughout this pandemic,” she said. “They should be applauded and recognized for the work and the sacrifices that they’ve made.”

Elementary school-aged children work on various task with legos during a STEM-inspired workshop, March 1, at the Aurora Library Central Branch. Classes like this and others are provided at all of the Aurora Library branches. Liz Williams, who is a Youth Serices Librarian for APL, leads the STEM class. Photo by PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

—– 2021 fast facts:

Number of items checked out in 2021: ​​1,068,265

Library cards issued in 2021: 23,257

Total library cardholders: 271,896

Total number of visits: 365,986

Number of program attendees: 561,670

Number of times library computers were used: 96,010

Questions answered by APL staff: over 300,000

Most checked out books, adults: Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens

Educated: A Memoir, Tara Westover

Most checked out books, teens:

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins

I am Malala: How one Girl Stood up for Education and Changed the World, Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick

Most checked out books, kids:

Dog Man: Grime and Punishment, Dav Pilkey

Minecraft: Guide to PVP Minigames

Most checked out eBook: The Four Winds: A Novel, Kristin Hannah

Most checked out audiobook: A Promised Land, Barack Obama

Most checked out DVDs:

Adults: “Wonder Woman: 1984”

Teens: “The Book Thief”

Children: “Aladdin”

Most checked out CD: Spanish (Latin American): The Short Course