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Northeast Mississippi Libraries Continue Service Amid COVID

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, libraries were forced to adapt their services to adhere to the safety restrictions. For many, public libraries provided community services far beyond just checking out books.

(TNS) — Barbara Carouthers, the Lee County, Miss., Bookmobile librarian, likes to remember the importance of continuing operations during the pandemic.

"We've been here. We're not considered the front-line workers, but I would say we're second line. We're the support group for those people," Carouthers said.

The Lee County Bookmobile has traveled the county's roadways since 1942, and Carouthers has been its faithful librarian since 2006. Her job is to foster a love of reading in some of Lee County's smaller towns — Guntown, Mooreville, Verona — and making stops at schools like the King Early Childhood Education Center in Tupelo and the Shannon Elementary and Middle schools.

When the doors are open, the bookmobile is a full service library. Carouthers likes to keep audiobooks, CDs, cookbooks and bestselling authors on her shelves, and she can get anything the bookmobile doesn't have if patrons call two days in advance.

It's all about outreach, Carouthers said. The bookmobile brings the county's library to everyone, regardless of where they live.

"Community is the heart of the bookmobile," she said. "You're meeting the people where they are."

In rural communities like those found in Northeast Mississippi, libraries can play a special role in providing internet access, being a place to gather and doing outreach to encourage literacy. The pandemic changed many things, but it didn't change that.

Ruby Holman, Amory Municipal Library

Ruby Holman has been the Amory Municipal Library branch librarian for the last four years. She started in an after-school program in 1972 as a page, and worked her way up to being the reference librarian in 1980.

When COVID-19 hit, it was like a totally new job for Holman.

"It was like, wow, I just got into this position," Holman said. "This wasn't covered in class."

The library staff of six quickly learned to always have a plan B. The physical library closed to the public. However, just as it did when computers and technology entered the scene, the library evolved. They offered curbside service for checking out books, faxing and copying to accommodate patrons who still didn't feel comfortable entering the library. Computers were available by appointment. They offer e-books and audiobooks. Story-time events for preschoolers went virtual and they began offering free Wi-Fi for patrons.

"The pandemic has brought about a lot of new ideas," Holman said.

Before the pandemic, Amory Municipal Library averaged between 35 and 40 patrons in the morning and another 60 to 75 patrons in the afternoon. Now, that number has dropped to an average of 15 to 20 patrons in the morning and 40 in the afternoon. Some services, such as the library's early learning kits and local history room, are still off-limits, and they've stopped taking donations.

Despite these rollbacks in patronage and services, Holman understands the importance of a library in a community like Amory.

"We're the center of the community," she said. "We promote early literacy, we promote just reading as entertainment. Libraries are vital and essential for every community. There are a lot of people that don't realize it, but we're here to help and try to fill a need."

Making decisions about the safety of her staff, as well as of herself, while trying to provide the same level of service even if the doors were locked weighed on Holman heavily. Though the library is open physically again, rising COVID-19 cases, coupled with the low vaccination rates in the state, mean there are still unknowns to guard against. Social distancing guidelines are still in place and patrons are encouraged to wear masks.

Still, it's the unknown that Holman fears.

"You don't want to be that person who gets people sick," she said.

Minnie Marie Bounds, Edmondson Memorial Library

September 25 will mark Minnie Marie Bounds' first anniversary since becoming the branch librarian of the Edmondson Memorial Library in Vardaman. A native of the town, she was reared five miles from the library on a farm, where her father was a sharecropper.

Bounds measures her connections in generations: When a young person comes into the library, she asks them about their great-grandparents. When the position for branch librarian became available, she applied with the previous librarian's recommendation.

"That is why I felt that made me qualified, being able to know everybody in the community," Bounds said.

Bounds' first year is one of constant overcoming, whether it was shutting down after COVID-19 cases began to rise or moving to curbside service. Late last year, Bounds came down with COVID-19 for 14 days, which worried her as she dealt with health issues such as having a pacemaker and diabetes. Fortunately, her symptoms were mild.

Then in May, she received a cancer diagnosis. Bounds didn't quit her job, but did have to cut her hours to accommodate her weekly chemotherapy sessions.

"There are days that I'm dragging, but there are good days, but I'm still here and I'm just thankful to God that I can keep working and keep moving," Bounds said.

With the chemotherapy, Bounds has to be extra careful because her immune system is more fragile. At times, she feels conflicted between her desire to be at the library for her patrons and looking out for her own health.

It's a challenging decision, because Bounds knows she is needed. According to Census estimates from 2015 and 2019, more a third of Calhoun County's population doesn't have access to broadband Internet. The library helps provide those people with much needed access to the online world.

Bounds said wants to ensure people continue receiving the small town service they've come to appreciate.

"Sometimes, people make it their home," Bounds said. "Even though it's a small library, it's important to the community."

Barbara Carouthers, Lee County Bookmobile

The Lee County Bookmobile experienced its biggest lull because of the pandemic. They closed all of April, but have been open ever since.

With COVID-19, Carouthers believes there's been a greater appreciation for the bookmobile's services. There are scheduled stops, and many visitors are longtime patrons. For her patrons who don't travel to Tupelo often, the bookmobile allows them to be part of the community.

"It's something special about the kids walking in and seeing me and saying, 'It's the Bookmobile lady,'" Carouthers said with a chuckle.

Carouthers remains hopeful people will return once COVID-19 cases decrease, and still welcomes the community to visit with her.

"When you are a part of the community, you're important to them," Carouthers said. "You're meeting a need, the need for books."

(c)2021 the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal (Tupelo, Miss.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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