Altadena pivots to offer everything from laptops to telescopes
By Dave Hogg

With the COVID-19 pandemic growing across the country, experts encourage people to limit trips away from home.

The Altadena Library District is trying to make that as easy as possible.

Along with other innovations introduced earlier in the year, both branches are offering a “Library of Things” collection, including everything from laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to sewing machines and a telescope.

The idea predates the pandemic, originating after the library teamed up with the area’s most famous scientific institution.

“It’s something the Altadena Library has talked about doing for at least a couple of years,” Library Director Nikki Winslow said. “I think it stemmed largely from a partnership with JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory) where we acquired a telescope, and they were going to help us calibrate it, and that was going to kick off the Library of Things.”

However, delays meant the telescope hadn’t gone into circulation when the main library and the Bob Lucas Memorial Branch closed on March 13. In the next two months, it became part of the plan to offer as many services as possible when the buildings were reopened.

“We let our staff back into the building on May 18 and launched curbside delivery on May 20,” Winslow said. “To be honest, it wasn’t the most organized thing in the world, but it was something people had repeatedly asked for in the ten weeks we were working from home. So, we started it right away and figured it out as we went.”

For the next four and a half months, both branches were closed except for the curbside pickups, preventing residents from using computers or taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.

That has changed in the last few weeks, but in-person services are still highly restricted.

“Until September, our focus was expanding curbside because we couldn’t open the door to people,” Winslow said. “Now we have three people working in the room for the five hours we’re open a day with a limited capacity for in-person browsing and computer usage. It is still a definite change from before the pandemic.”

That’s where the Library of Things helps. With only a few patrons able to use the computers, the library board decided to release the rest of the computers into the community.

“One of the reasons people need the library is to access computers and the Internet,” Winslow said. “We realized we had a lot of laptops going unused, so we expanded the number of Wi-Fi mobile hotspots we had, and we converted our laptops so they could be circulated. That’s what really brought the Library of Things to life.”

The plan, though, goes far beyond access to the web. There are now sewing machines available, toolkits are being put together, and the children’s staff provided ghost-hunting tools and music kits.

“The biggest delay has been the paperwork with adding items to the catalog so that they are accessible,” Winslow said. “We need to make sure people know how to use them and have the proper manuals for everything.”

There have been a few minor glitches—the laptops running LINUX haven’t been popular and are being converted to Windows—but theft hasn’t been one of them.

“One of the exciting things about this is things are getting checked out, and they are all coming back,” Winslow said. “We were really concerned about things being returned because these are more high-ticket items, so we set up a new type of patron called a ‘Good Neighbor.’ You have to have an account with us for at least 21 days and an established record of checking out things and returning them.

“As a result of that program, we’re at a 100% return rate on all the items.”

The library system has also gotten creative with the ways they deliver services, including taking advantage of the Southern California climate.

“We recently offered a series of workshops outside of our Bob Lucas branch, where we are building a sustainable demonstration garden with native plants,” Assistant Library Director Viktor Sjolberg said. “We’ve involved the community with the building of the garden and they’ve been helping us build a kind of walkway for it. Later, we’re going to plant trees over four weekends.”

The Lucas branch has also been able to restart its educational programs.

“We’ve been able to offer a limited amount of in-person tutoring for learners who are enrolled in our adult-literacy program as well as ESL classes,” Sjoberg said. “They are small scale and socially distanced, but it has been very helpful because those learners have been wanting to come back for a long time.”

In the first week of the closure, the library staff met with members of the town council and community groups to set up a local news source.

“We wanted to have some type of centralized information hub that could get information out to the region,” Winslow said. “Pasadena has a newspaper, but Altadena really doesn’t, so we’re working with different local groups and organizations as well as LA County Public Health and the California Health Department to provide accurate, timely information to people in Altadena.”

The result was Altadena Connections (altadenanews.org)—a site that has become popular with the local community, something that makes Sjoberg and Winslow proud.

“This is such a good time to deepen the connections we have with the community because we are facing the shared challenge of the pandemic,” Sjoberg said. “There are times when we have to challenge ourselves and move past the status quo, and sometimes that doesn’t happen unless there is a real crisis of some sort.

“I think we owe it to the community and our staff to make decisions that will allow us to provide deeper, more meaningful services now and in the future.”

Sjolberg and Winslow hoped the improving coronavirus situation in southern California would allow them to move things back to normal. The recent national spike has dimmed those chances.

“We’ve had a conversation about closing off in-person browsing again, but the staff still feels we can keep things safe and secure,” Winslow said. “We’re keeping an eye on everything and being responsible, but I don’t see the library fully opening again for months and months.”

Until that happens, the library will keep coming up with new ways to help Altadena’s citizens.

“We’re looking to find ways to offer remote service to the parts of the community that are underserved and have always been underserved,” Winslow said.

“I’m really not frustrated. I’m excited by the opportunity.”