Curbside, Community, and Adaptability: A Conversation with Celeste Peck

Your Library, like so many other places this year, has had to adapt its services to fit the contours of our new COVID world. One way we’ve done this is by providing a curbside pickup service. To give you a behind-the-scenes perspective of how we’ve adapted, we sat down to talk with Celeste Peck, JCPL’s Public Experience Manager, who oversees the Library’s Circulation Department and curbside service.

JCPL: What’s your role here at the Library?

Celeste Peck: Well, it might help if I start with what the Circulation Department does. That will give you a better idea of what my role is.

moving gif of library workers in the circulation room going about their tasks

Since we began curbside pickup, you and your community have checked out over 90,000 items! In October alone, your Library staff delivered almost 20,000 books and movies to curbside.

We provide service to the public. We keep track of all the books. So, we need to know where things are at any given time. We need to be able to go put our hand on any item that the computer says is here. We keep up with inventory and make sure people have what they’re asking for in a timely manner.

A big part of what we do, and a big part of the culture we strive to create at the Library, is customer service. Just always having a positive attitude and showing everyone we’re happy to see them. Creating a welcoming place for people to be.

How has Circulation changed since the Library’s building closed to the public?

We closed March 18 for COVID, and at that time we didn’t have curbside service. It was just regular service inside. We had bounced around the idea of, “Well, what if people drove up?”, but we had only loosely entertained the idea.

And so, it went from that to where we had to provide curbside service. Really, our whole base of operations changed, and… what’s the word… the flow of everything changed. We changed the Library’s big meeting room into the curbside command center.

And the work itself changed. We became basically like Amazon, order fulfillment. You know, someone places an order, you fill the order. It went from really individualized, personalized customer service to more of a phone service, internet. You know, how can you be friendly and welcoming over the phone and online? And how can you personalize that presence when it’s not personalized? We had to figure that out, too.

My crew is really good at just rolling with change. [Laughs.] “Adapt, improvise, and overcome,” you know, that motto.

While the Library has been closed, employees in every department have helped in Circulation, using a few of their work hours each week to run curbside orders. This has not only made curbside possible, but has also helped build a library-wide “team spirit” during a time of social isolation.

Library Director Julia Turpin helps out as a runner for the library's curbside service

We went from personalized service to almost, like, fast food. You know, people place their orders and we have to get it to them as quickly as possible. I knew the only way we’d be able to do that is if we had help from other departments. Since other departments weren’t doing programs or helping people in person, employees had the time to go pull book orders for us, run them out to cars.

It’s kind of a library-wide effort now.

Yes. Yes! It really did sort of become this whole collaborative, you know, “We’re all in this together, and how can we do it?”

I think it’s awesome that libraries are so adaptable. You know, like Einstein said, “When it comes to survival, it’s not the strongest, it’s the ones who can most easily adapt that survive.” I have found that one of our Library’s biggest strengths, thanks to our employees as a collective, is that it’s a very adaptive institution. I am really proud of that.

The Library was able to adapt so quickly to curbside pickup in part because of our Automated Materials Handler (AMH). The machine automatically sorts returned books and media. This technology makes the process of sorting, shelving, and finding materials much more efficient.

Patrons look at the AMH in the circulation department
Celeste shows off the AMH to visitors at an open house event.

How has curbside grown and changed since we started doing it?

It’s grown a lot. Our first day, June 1, I think that day we did something like 900 checkouts. It was really busy. And then it averaged out to maybe 500 or so a day for awhile. But then, once we increased the number of holds you could have, it really went up.

We have some really creative problem-solvers on our staff, and the cool thing is that they don’t think of it as solving problems. They think of it as, “How can we get people more books?” [Laughs.] Like the Book Bundles. A patron just calls or goes on our website and says, ‘these are topics, authors, genres I’m interested in. Can you grab some books or movies you think I might like?’ I think that is a very clever way of getting materials to people.

An example of a book bundle from teen services, put together around the theme "thriller"

Book Bundles are batches of books and media that librarians handpick for you based on what you’re interested in. You can order one for yourself here.

I think stuff we’ve offered this year, like Book Bundles, or like our Summer Reading efforts, have helped our circulation numbers stay high.

The Library is usually such a community space and people can come and learn together and learn with librarians. And obviously, people can’t do that right now. But it really seems like, through curbside and digital programs, we are trying to recreate that, doing what we can to still be a community space.

Yes. And I like that that’s always on [Library Director] Julia Turpin’s mind. She talks about the Library being a “third space” in our community.

The third space is, like…I always think of my papaw, growing up, and my mom always said, “Yeah, men call women the gossips, but it’s really the men that are gossips,” because papaw would always go down to the post office. It was near the home where he and my grandmother lived. But papaw would get up and he would say he was going to the store and by the post office. But it wasn’t really to run errands. The post office is like this little gathering place for the older men who were retired and just, you know, shooting the breeze and wanting to catch up on everybody’s life. “How’s your daughter doing, and how’s the grandson,” and all of that, so that’s like “third space.”

It’s a place where anyone can come and they feel safe and included. Kind of like Cheers. Everybody knows your name. [Laughs.]

My favorite position in Circulation has always been out front at the Circulation Desk, because I truly love seeing people and having a chat and catching up and hearing their stories. Some of them have really fascinating stories. And if you are interested in human behaviors and the differences we all have, it’s a really interesting place to be: at the front desk in the Library. I love it and I love our public. I love our patrons. And I feel like that’s reciprocated.

Library Director Julia Turpin puts curbside orders into the back of a car. A child smiles from the back seat.

But when human interaction has to be a quick exchange and everyone’s afraid to be near each other, it’s really hard to create that connection. At least with curbside, when we go out to the car we can still say, “Oh, hi, how are you? Are you guys doing OK, everybody well?” At least there’s that, you know, chitchat.

But it’s always on my mind: How can we, in the age of COVID, keep people feeling like we’re a community, and we’re here for them?

Yeah. It’s been hard for some of our librarians who are so used to doing in-person programming, storytimes, and helping answer people’s questions. Pivoting to not being able to do that at all or having it all online has definitely been an interesting thing. But there’s been a lot of innovation, which is really cool.

Yes. Yes. The physical environment has really changed a lot to adapt to this new situation, like with curbside. And it’s something the public likes a lot! I talked recently with an older lady who has mobility issues, and she said, “Oh, my gosh, I wish you guys would have done this years ago! I wouldn’t have had to send an assistant!” And she said, “Is this going to continue?” And I said, “Yes!” [Laughs.] The public spoke and we listened. They love it. You know, sometimes the baby’s asleep in the car. Parents want to just pull up and get their holds and not have to wake the baby up and come in.

Anyway, people really like curbside, so we’re going to continue to do it long after COVID. It was a change we had to make, but that willingness to change and adapt has really paid off.

Learn more about curbside pickup here. You can place a hold for curbside pickup through the catalog on our website or by calling (423) 434-4450.

For more information on what the Library is doing right now, visit our current services page. And follow Johnson City Public Library on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to stay up-to-date on Library happenings.

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