'The Great Equalizer': Why Some Arizona Libraries Offer Curbside Service Amid COVID-19

By Christina Estes
Published: Wednesday, May 6, 2020 - 7:40am
Updated: Friday, May 8, 2020 - 8:23am

Audio icon Download mp3 (5.41 MB)

Curbside Service at the Northwest Regional Library in Surprise
Maricopa County Library District
Customers park at the Northwest Regional Library in Surprise to take part in curbside service in April 2020.

Libraries are among the most treasured public spaces across Arizona. During the pandemic all public libraries continue to provide services, but their operating models are different.  

Maricopa County Library District

About 40 miles southeast of downtown Phoenix, customers at Queen Creek Library get the curbside treatment.

Rob Scott, digital marketing officer for Maricopa County Library District, recorded audio last week at KJZZ’s request as a library employee directed a driver to a numbered space where the driver would pop open the vehicle’s trunk.

“What they’re going to do is bring the books out for you and put them in your trunk,” the employee explained.

San Tan Valley resident Danica Martinez recently used the curbside service. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, Martinez visited the library at least once a week to check out items for her family and herself. 

“I’m one of those people who actually likes to hold a book,” she said.

Maricopa City Library
City of Maricopa
The Maricopa Public Library is offering curbside pickup for library books.

Before the Maricopa County Library District launched curbside pickup two weeks ago, Martinez relied on an e-reader, an option not available to everyone. 

“The digital divide is real in Arizona,” said Erin MacFarlane, customer service administrator for the district, which welcomed nearly 3 million visitors last year. 

“The library is the great equalizer, right? So, people come to the library because they might not be able to afford to get the books that they need and access the information that they need at a Barnes and Noble or an Amazon or your local Changing Hands Bookstore, and so having those materials available for free was really important to our customers,” MacFarlane said.  

"The library is the great equalizer ... and so having those materials available for free was really important to our customers."
— Erin MacFarlane, Maricopa County Library District

Phoenix Public Library

Sixteen libraries in the state’s most populous county offer curbside pickup but not libraries in the state’s most populous city. 

“It has been a topic of discussion for Phoenix Public Library,” said Lee Franklin, community relations manager.

She said Phoenix is erring on the side of caution by not offering curbside service. 

“We don’t see an ability for us to do that and still prioritize maintaining that safe environment for our staff, our customers and our visitors,” Franklin said.  

smilinig woman sitting at desk with computer
Phoenix Public Library
Kristl is a librarian for Phoenix Public Library working from home during the pandemic.

Taking Precautions

In March, the American Library Association urged all libraries to close until communities are no longer at risk of getting or spreading the coronavirus.

Erin MacFarlane said all county employees fulfilling curbside orders wear masks and gloves and stay at least 6 feet apart. 

“Most of our libraries also did a run through so all of the staff could see and practice what this looked like with social distancing,” she said. “The managers and supervisors all stressed to their staff the most important thing here is safety.”   

In the city of Maricopa, curbside service began in late March, stopped when Gov. Doug Ducey issued a stay-at-home order and then resumed this week. In Flagstaff, two libraries offer a twist to curbside. A staff member pulls requested materials, puts them in a bag and leaves it on a table outside for pick up. There’s no-face-to-face contact. 

empty self check out lanes at burton barr library
Phoenix Public Library
The self checkout area at Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix on April 23, 2020.

When customers return materials to libraries in Flagstaff, Maricopa and Maricopa County, they cannot be checked out for at least three days — that’s how long the virus that causes COVID-19 can live on plastic surfaces, according to a study involving the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   

Danica Martinez said she’s not concerned about library books, she compares them to touching items at the grocery store. 

“I absolutely love the library and I’ve appreciated this library so, so much, and I’m just so grateful for them,” she said.

Reopening Plans

Franklin said Phoenix Public Library is planning a phased reopening to allow people safe access to physical materials. No date has been set and the library continues to add more electronic options to its website. 

“We’ve seen about a 30% increase in the use of our e-book platforms," she said. “We’ve also been able to expand the streaming time that’s available for our music platforms.” 

"We’ve seen about a 30% increase in the use of our e-book platforms."
— Lee Franklin, Phoenix Public Library

Librarians are available to answer questions and help people navigate e-resources through the website or by calling 602-262-4636 Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.

For now, in-person service remains off limits in Phoenix. This week, Maricopa County Library District extended curbside hours to every weekday morning with three locations also offering Saturday morning service.

Samatha Mears, communication administrator, said the district is still thinking through what a reopening will look like: “This may mean keeping some of our new programs like Curbside Pickup or MCLD Now [virtual programs], but nothing has been set in stone at this point in time.”

More Stories From KJZZ

BusinessCoronavirus Education