It’s in times like these that libraries prove their worth.

Which isn’t to say that your local library isn’t a valuable community resource all the time. But over the course of the past year, libraries in the Northern Lights Library System (NLLS) have seen a massive increase in demand for their online services, with no sign that the need for their physical facilities will decrease.

“The library is more than just a repository of books,” says NLLS executive director James MacDonald. “It’s really about space. It’s a social centre, it’s a place where people can interact and meet. 

“And that’s one of the things that’s made Covid so difficult – [a library is] far more than just picking up some books or browsing the shelves. It’s really a central social hub for the community and a safe space for people from all demographics.”

When branches are closed or while in-person use is restricted, the libraries’ online offerings have been growing in popularity, MacDonald said. In fact, more people are using library resources than ever.

“We’ve seen a massive uptick in our access to our electronic resources – 400, 500, 600 per cent increase in online access to the material since the pandemic,” he said. “So that’s encouraging.”

People are finding the online resources for the first time, “and maybe even finding a library for the first time,” MacDonald said. “So we’re excited about that.”

The services available online include e-books, as well as huge databases of information on everything from small engine repair to tracing your family tree. There are also literacy and reading programs for children, and DuoLingo second-language training resources for adults.

But as online offerings continue to expand during the pandemic, MacDonald says the heart and soul of the system is still in the local libraries.

“The physical books are still important to a lot of people, and so we’ve done curbside pickup in many of our libraries,” he said.

The libraries in the Northern Lights system operate independently, with NLLS offering consultation and support. This gives each local library the autonomy to determine how best to serve the public in its own community.

“Many of our libraries have chosen curbside pickup as an option, for example, and some of our libraries have even gone to the extent of delivering books directly to people’s homes,” MacDonald said. “And our librarians are helping them to identify books they would enjoy reading. You can imagine just having that outlet has probably been a mental health lifesaver for many of our elderly and others that have been shut in as a result of the pandemic.”

Local branches are also able to help anyone file government forms or print documents, including resumés. 

MacDonald says people miss their community libraries when access is limited, whether it’s as a job-searching resource, a meeting place, or just a central source of good books.

“Everybody is keen and eager to have the libraries open fully, and we certainly appreciate the buildings and the infrastructure we have, especially in these rural communities. We have some very beautiful spaces that just become the heart of their communities,” he said. 

“A lot of people are thrilled to just be in the library, to be able to visit those spaces and see friends, even if it’s in a socially distant manner, and just to roam the bookshelves and participate in the limited programming.”

And for all the online capabilities and the brick-and-mortar facilities, MacDonald says it’s people who make the libraries function.

“We have a very hard-working group of dedicated librarians and library staff in these regional rural libraries that do a lot to enhance the communities they’re in,” he said. 

“I just applaud their work. These are pillars of our communities, that are serving those rural communities and tying people together in an age where we have to social distance. They’re working hard to ensure that we stay connected.

“I’m just very pleased to be a part of the profession and a part of this service,” MacDonald said. “It’s meaningful work.”