Ruta Smith

What does a public library do when it’s closed to the public? The Charleston County Public Library (CCPL) has worked hard to answer that question during the coronavirus pandemic. And while the system has a phased reopening of branches planned next month, executive director Angela Craig says that some library functions will never return to normal — and that’s for the best.

Craig, who has held her position since February 2019, had to make a decision she never thought she’d have to make this March. Not only did every CCPL branch close its doors, like so many businesses and organizations, they closed for an undetermined amount of time.

Over the course of three days, the library switched entirely to a digital platform. “We’re never going back,” said Craig, who noted that while all the digital resources were already available, they are now more accessible than ever. “The digital platform has allowed us to take the best practices from each branch and share it all over the county.”

Your favorite storytime at Dorchester Road Regional Library or King Street’s John L. Dart Library is now available to everyone, all the time.

Hindsight is, of course, imbued with knowledge we didn’t have access to before, and Craig says the transition to CCPL’s fully online platform would have been easier if the library had taken more steps to broaden their offerings before the pandemic hit. It’s easy to understand why online programs were not at the top of the list in recent years; the library is in the middle of a campaign to build new branches and renovate existing ones.

Now, Craig realizes the importance of not just physical libraries, but of digital branches as well. “We realized we needed to serve our patrons differently,” said Craig. “It’s made us think of patrons who don’t have digital access, who are part of the digital divide. We’ve kept building Wi-Fi on [for each branch] and we’re lucky to have buildings in rural areas to close some gaps.”

Still, Craig acknowledges that the digital divide is real in Charleston County and the library wants to work harder than before to address gaps she’s seen in parts of town that don’t have access to the internet or electronic devices.

“Coronavirus or not, they didn’t have access. All patrons should have equitable access,” said Craig. “It’s shown to us that we have all the pieces to move forward and we can’t close all the gaps, but we can help. My goal is to have the library be part of the conversation about digital equity.”

The pandemic has also included other silver linings. Not only has the library become more aware of areas that need work, library staff has become more dedicated than ever to bringing the best content to the community.

Craig and the staff have taken advantage of the extra time they have to develop a catalog of content: The library offers lessons, videos and activities for people of all age groups and folks of all technology comfort levels. “It’s been so fun and affirming for staff to see their body of work — and we don’t have to recreate anything,” said Craig. “We do what we’ve always done.”

Like any good public library, CCPL has functioned as an integral part of the community during this pandemic. Craig says local teachers are linking to library resources and that she’s had more people than ever ask her about getting a library card.

We’re mere months away from what is usually a busy hurricane season in the Lowcountry, one that shuts down everything in town year after year. The library is ready for that too, proving yet another silver lining in this strange time. “We handled the unknown and handled it well and we’re still here and we’re thriving,” said Craig.

On Monday, June 8, CCPL locations are scheduled to start offering limited in-person services including the ability to pick up books. “What is essential and what is needed when something like this happens?” asked Craig. “I’m not saying we’re essential in the same way as emergency workers. We’re community essential, just like schools are.”