‘We’ve got this’: Central Texas librarians step up to help their communities amid coronavirus pandemic

(Graphic illustration courtesy Jay Jones/Community Impact Newspaper)
(Graphic illustration courtesy Jay Jones/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Graphic illustration courtesy Jay Jones/Community Impact Newspaper)

On the surface, it appeared to be an unusual proposal from the Bee Cave Chamber of Commerce—utilize the city’s library staff to help local small businesses that are hemorrhaging money amid the coronavirus pandemic.

During a March 31 Bee Cave City Council meeting, Adrian Overstreet, owner of the Bee Cave Austin Sonesta Hotel, said the chamber has been working on helping small businesses who have been getting more desperate as the coronavirus continues.

Even though the stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, passed into law March 27, there is likely much more time between now and when assistance arrives, Overstreet said, adding the process to get the money will likely be extraordinarily complex.

Because of this, Overstreet and the chamber have proposed a simple solution that city officials have now embraced.

Specifically, with the endorsement of City Council, Bee Cave librarians will be the face of what will be called the Small Business Assistance Center, or SBAC.

"The city has a great resource, which is the library," Overstreet said. "That's what librarians do for a passion and a living is they accumulate information. Since they're not checking out books right now, this seemed like a logical fit for librarians."

Barbara Hathaway, Bee Cave Public Library director, addressed council during the March 31 meeting and said she and her staff are thrilled to manage the SBAC, and the program could possibly be up and running within a couple of weeks, maybe less.

“We’ve got this,” she said.

Librarians stepping up throughout Central Texas

The example in Bee Cave appears to be just one of many stories relating how, amid the pandemic, librarians are helping their communities throughout the Greater Austin area.

Michelle Cervantes, Round Rock Public Library director, said her staff is maintaining their normal duties as much as possible and taking advantage of the brick-and-mortar building’s temporary closure through special projects. This includes shifting some 43,000 items from the library’s various collections so they will be easier to find when the building is open to the public again.

But on top of that, Cervantes said her staff is connected with COVID Rangers, a group that is sewing masks for first responders. Additionally, Round Rock library staff is assisting in connecting people looking for ways to help their neighbors and others in the community, and they have a staff member at the Round Rock Emergency Office Center answering calls from residents who need or can offer help from those in the community.

“It is really scary, and one of the things we’re trying to do is keep people calm and let people know we’re here,” Cervantes said.

In San Marcos, library staff are also serving as conduits to the greater community referring people to resources, according to Diane Insley, San Marcos Public Library director.

“There are not very many places that are currently open, and we are trying to keep track of that,” Insley said, referring to businesses and other entities, and added that her staff is answering the phone from 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1-6 p.m. on Sunday.

Basically, Insley said, her staff members are connecting people to information, regardless of whether it is library- or community-related.

In Georgetown, Sally Miculek, assistant director of the Georgetown Public Library, said staff there formed an ad hoc committee March 31, the same day Bee Cave City Council endorsed the SBAC plan, to evaluate how to better help those looking for jobs and needing resume fixes as more residents are hit by the pandemic.

“Additionally, we’re looking into unemployment information with the [CARES Act] that has come out so we can help disseminate that information,” Miculek said. “So we’ll be pointing people toward organizations that can help them with unemployment claims.”

And in Lakeway, Morgan McMillan, Lake Travis Community Library director, said even though the library has been totally closed since late March, she is looking into developing an online version of an existing program to help people in western Travis County with resumes, job searches and other employment-related issues.

The versatility of librarians

In many cases, library programs helping people connect to information beyond that within their own libraries is not new.

As two examples, the Lake Travis Public Library had been helping residents with employment-related information prior to the pandemic, and the Round Rock Public Library already had a program called Resume Review, but due to social distancing restrictions shifted it to be Resume Review via Zoom, the video conferencing web tool.

Kate Margolis, who has a master's degree in library science and has been a public librarian for 15 years, said public libraries have always been a source of information for their communities beyond the books in their buildings.

It also makes perfect sense that librarians are able to adapt quickly to the needs of a community, she said.

“If you look at the last 20 years, the amount of changes librarians have had to make [due to the rapid development of the internet age], every two years we have a sea change in what the public wants from books, what we offer in terms in references and so on,” Margolis said. “We have had to change and adapt to what people want.”

Margolis, who is assistant library director of The Colony Public Library in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said when all of the shelter-in-place orders started happening, the first thing she and her staff thought of did not involve confusion over what they were going to do now. Rather, their focus was on how they could still serve the public as much as possible.

“Changing is just kind of what we’ve been doing,” Margolis said. “[We’ve been] figuring out what to do when things change and they aren’t as we expected them to be.”

True to that spirit, Hathaway said her staff in Bee Cave is doing whatever they can to help small businesses amid this crisis, and the proposed SBAC is really just an extension of that.

Small businesses in Bee Cave have always been there for the public library, especially when library staff have asked for donations or sponsorships for various programs, such as their summer reading program. To that end, she said she is happy she and her staff can help return the favor.

“Libraries are happy when people recognize that we can be a great resource for them,” she said.
By Brian Rash
Brian has been a reporter and editor since 2012. He wrote about the music scene in Dallas-Fort Worth before becoming managing editor for the Graham Leader in Graham, Texas, in 2013. He relocated to Austin, Texas, in 2015 to work for Gatehouse Media's large design hub. He became the editor for the Lake Travis-Westlake publication of Community Impact in August 2018. From there he became a dual-market editor for Community Impact's New Braunfels and San Marcos-Buda-Kyle editions. Brian is now a senior editor for the company's flagship papers, the Round Rock and Pflugerville-Hutto editions.