CLEVELAND, Ohio (WJW) – Everyone knows libraries should be quiet, but not as quiet as they were during the COVID-19 shutdowns. During the height of the pandemic, Northeast Ohio libraries, like many other places had to close their doors to the public.
“You fell off the face of the earth and there was nowhere to go,” said Judy Montfort, as she described the feeling she had when the library closed.
Although, behind the scenes, libraries were a sort of pandemic lifeline for many, like Montfort. She drives past four different Cleveland Public Library locations to come to the Langston Hughes Branch. Before the pandemic, she was there multiple days a week, and then during the shutdown, even with the doors locked, she was still there.
“I would sit out in the cold and read the newspapers, with the car running sometimes, and then you would pick up the books that you had ordered,” Montfort said.
Her mornings spent in the library parking lot not only got her the information she needed from newspapers and books, but she got a moment of hard to come by personal interaction.
“They would always say to you, whoever it was, be sure to stay safe,” she said.
Montfort isn’t the only one who needed the library during the closures. Maryann Freeman works part time connecting seniors and the disabled to vital community resources and uses the Maple Heights Library as her workspace.
Her work became very difficult at home and when she couldn’t do it, the libraries did it instead.
“I would call in and ask some people to do some research, find some things for me they amazingly can research much better than me,” said Freeman.
One day her home printer went out, so the library printed what she needed, and they made copies too.
“If I needed something to get my work done, they were there,” she said.
The libraries filled basic needs like food and an internet connection. They handed out food boxes to cars lining up in their parking lots. Freeman picked them up and delivered them to people in need who couldn’t leave their homes.
The library parking lots became workplaces and homework stations. The county logged 70,000 sessions on their Wi-Fi networks when they were closed because people didn’t have an adequate connection at home.
In recent weeks the libraries have handed out free at-home COVID-19 tests and helped people register for vaccine appointments.
Then there’s the families, like the Soeders, Marueen and her three daughters, Maggie, Emily, and Erin in Fairview.
“I was bored because I didn’t have anything new to read and I had read most of the books in my house,” said Maggie, who is 9 years old.
They usually got to their local library once a week and depended on it for new reading material for all three girls. The first day the library did curbside pickup, they were there, waiting in line.
“They would put the books in the trunk, and I would unbuckle and climb back there and grab the books,” Maggie said.
Soeder would call ahead, tell the librarians her daughter’s ages and interests and they would put together a book bundle, with things the girls might enjoy reading.
“It was that one little pick me up for them to say oh good I got a new book and to come home and I wouldn’t see them for an hour,” Soeder said.
It is clear libraries became a lifeline for so many families during the pandemic.
Now $200 million has been set aside in the American Rescue Plan Act, the latest stimulus package passed by congress, to help them continue.
The Cleveland and Cuyahoga County library systems have not heard exactly how much funding they will get, but both are applauding the federal investment in local libraries.
In Cuyahoga County, the libraries plan to launch new programs over the summer to help kids who fell behind during the pandemic.
“We want to be there for our communities to help support students in catching up after a year plus of interrupted learning,” said Hallie Rich, with the Cuyahoga County Public Library.
Libraries also plan new physical investments to keep them open safely for work, after-school programs and story hours.
Libraries are still not open fully, but they are starting to look a little bit like they did before things changed, with books and reading once again drawing in the young and the old.
“It takes you into a whole ‘nother world that you would never have imagined and it’s so awesome,” said Maggie Soeder.