NJ Libraries Are Evolving To Be The “Community Hub Of The 21st Century”

Many libraries activated more virtual programs – including story time – to stay connected because access was, and still is, the core issue for so many people. Photo courtesy of Monmouth County Library System

Last Halloween was not a typical workday for Judith Tolchin. As director of the Monmouth County Library System, his professional duties focus primarily on “politics and operations”. But today was different. Due to early voting, coupled with the fact that it was a Sunday, the Manalapan branch, where Tolchin is located, was understaffed. That’s why she volunteered to run the referral desk, a role she hadn’t filled in seven years.

His attention was quickly drawn to a “frustrated and visibly upset” customer. He had taken the bus to the branch, which left him with little time before the library closed at 5 p.m. (for public use). Worse still, the computers went dark at 4:50 p.m. When she heard about her predicament – which involved renewing her license in order to rent a truck and leave her home the next day – Tolchin pulled out her laptop and helped him “complete his transaction with MVC.” After printing the documents “for proof of rental of the vehicle” from her office, she even checked the bus schedule so that he did not miss his transfers. For Tolchin it was “an easy decision to help” because he “might have lost so much”.

It is about the modern library, which not only “plays such an important role in people’s lives and serves so many people who have so little”, as Tolchin noted, but is also the standard-bearer of services that cater to both community and individual needs. And technology has become the tool that allows libraries to stay in touch with their patrons and transform themselves into what Tolchin calls “the community hub of the 21st century.”

While these technological innovations – including mobile apps and databases, remote printing, tablet lending, tech courses, one-on-one computer training, job training and skills-building courses – were Already underway long before COVID, the pandemic has accelerated the pace of some of these latest advances. For starters, most branches extended the range of their pre-existing Wi-Fi signals and also lent hotspots for connectivity.

The Newark Public Library in Essex County provides a suite of invaluable resources that have made the institution a community center. Photo courtesy of Newark Public Library

“The Great Equalizer”

Each branch of New Jersey County Library Systems serves something specific that speaks to that community. As schools closed and the lockdown began, the Newark Public Library in Essex County responded to the needs of the town by creating a student hub, with two teachers who guided a range of students with varying needs. And in Monmouth County, Tolchin had the library up and running remotely in just two days. Many libraries also activated more virtual programs – including story time – to stay connected because access was, and still is, the core issue for so many people.

“Librarians are well positioned to roll with new technology,” said Sara Siegler, deputy director of the Ocean County Library System. She proudly boasts the new Sensory space at the Toms River branch, which actually rolls in said new technology. Created in late 2021, the space was “built with calm in mind” – including noise reduction, tactile and sensory sensory experiences and LED lights – to better serve “the high number of people with autism” and other sensory-related issues in the county.

The Toms River branch of Ocean County Library System has a sensory space that includes noise reduction, tactile and sensory sensory experiences, and LED lights – to better serve people with autism. Photo courtesy of Ocean County Library System

Further north, the Newark Public Library (NPL) has begun offering a virtual courtroom for nonviolent offenders as part of a restorative justice program, which began during the pandemic. Newark is also one of six state branches participating in the innovation Fresh Start Program, which assists formerly incarcerated people with their reintegration into the community by helping them find employment and housing. As Joslyn Dixon, Director of the NPL explained, libraries “are the great equalizer because we are free and make life better, for all walks of life.” Other Fresh Start participants include Cumberland County Librarythe Atlantic City Free Library and the Trenton Free Public Library.

In terms of access and representation, Tiffany McClary from New Jersey State Library is proud of the recent deployment NJHealthConnect initiative, a “statewide telehealth program designed to bridge the digital divide.” Noting that many New Jersey residents lack computers to look up important health information, as well as work schedules that prohibit many vulnerable populations from seeing a doctor, McClary said 450 pre-configured iPads have were sent in January to 152 libraries across the state in an effort to reduce this socio-economic divide. Recipients include branches in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Monmouth counties.

Tablet lending is available at libraries across the state with the goal of creating equal technology access for everyone. Photo courtesy of Monmouth County Library System

A new chapter

As the state and its residents ease some of the most stringent COVID protocols in the past two years and people begin to visit their library branches in person rather than online, Tolchin is keen to find a future balance between two areas. “We’re reaching people we haven’t reached before,” she said. “We don’t want to step back from what we have built. Taking a step back is not an option. »

vanessa Rothschild is a freelance writer and editor. She has written about entertainment, food and culture for Entertainment Weekly, TVGuide.com and NJ.com.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Jersey’s Best. Subscribe here for in-depth access to everything that makes the Garden State great.

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Jill E. Washington