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Patricia Uttaro, 58

Librarian chief talks about how Monroe County libraries have adapted to the COVID-19 era

By Todd Etshman

How have patrons adapted to the libraries’ COVID-19 protocol?

Probably the biggest adaptation we’ve seen is the shift to using the library’s e-content products — Overdrive, Hoopla, Medici TV and a lot of others. Borrowing of e-books and e-audiobooks through Overdrive’s Libby app increased countywide by more than 70% in the first couple of months of quarantine and has held steady into the new year. Libraries also began offering programs online using Zoom and Facebook Live. The popularity of these formats has been stunning, especially for the Central Library where we are hearing patrons, especially seniors, say they prefer virtual because they don’t have worry about transportation and parking. By the end of September, virtual programs offered just by the Central Library had clocked more than 20,000 views. Other libraries have reported similar results and are hearing that people would like us to continue offering online programs even after we’re able to do in-person programs again.

Does each library have its own protocol, how is it determined?

The Monroe County Library System consists of 20 member libraries the Rochester Public Library’s 10 branches and Central Library plus 19 town and village libraries throughout the county. Each library is independently operated, with its own library boards of trustees. Decisions on how to provide service are made at the local level by the independent library boards and directors. Right now, most of the suburban libraries are open for limited in-person service while the city libraries are offering only curbside pickup.

Besides COVID-19, what are the libraries’ biggest challenges today?

Funding is always an issue. Libraries have to compete with other essential municipal services and there’s just so much money to go around. Many local libraries have started foundations or have active friends groups that help raise private money to complement tax dollars. People who don’t use libraries assume that they are not needed any longer because “everything is on the internet.” Hate to break it to you, but everything is “not” on the internet and a lot of what is on the internet isn’t what I would call “good” information. Author Neil Gaiman has been quoted as saying “Google can give you a million answers; a librarian will give you the right answer.”

How important is an open functioning library to the older than 55 population?

Public libraries provide access to affordable entertainment, social activities and lifelong learning opportunities for the older than 55 population. Libraries are the third place where you can visit, stay a while, see your neighbors and walk out with a bag full of books and other materials that will keep you occupied and engaged for weeks, all for free.

What changes have you seen in libraries here or elsewhere in your 30-year career?

The most significant change I’ve seen is the shift from print to digital and that includes how we retrieve information as well as how we consume it. Card catalogs are an artifact now, replaced by a fast, accurate online catalog that lets you browse and order what you want. Then have it sent to the library of your choice. Fifteen years ago, all the talking heads were predicting the death of the print book, but that hasn’t happened. People tend to fall into three categories — print only, digital only or a blend of both. Most fall into the last category.

How do you see the future of the library system you oversee?

We have one of the most dynamic and creative sets of library leaders in Monroe County libraries that I have seen in my 35-year career. They are thinking up all sorts of inventive and appealing things to offer our patrons. There is tremendous support for libraries in this county. While communities in other areas of the country are closing libraries, we’re building them in Monroe County. I am personally looking forward to spending time in the new Chili Library when I retire!

Photo: Patricia Uttaro is the director of the Monroe County Library System and the Rochester Public Library. She has been a librarian for 35 years.