Schenectady County

Schenectady public library staffers pitching in to keep community connected

Team asked to run Schenectady County COVID-19 Emergency Response Coalition Call Center
Karen Bradley, center, talks to Devon Hedges at the food distribution center at the Boys & Girls Club in Mont Pleasant April 9.
Karen Bradley, center, talks to Devon Hedges at the food distribution center at the Boys & Girls Club in Mont Pleasant April 9.

SCHENECTADY — Librarians of the Schenectady County Public Library system are used to taking calls and providing answers to all kinds of questions. During the past month or so, they’ve had to help their patrons in a very different way.

“Around the country, libraries have become the hearts of a community, and during the very troubling times that have happened in our country libraries have been the go-to place in a time of crisis,” Schenectady County Library Director Karen Bradley told The Gazette last year.

That’s part of the reason why when COVID-19 began to spread in the Capital Region, Bradley and her team of library staff members were asked to step in and run the Schenectady County COVID-19 Emergency Response Coalition Call Center.


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The call center is currently located at the Schenectady Boys & Girls Club. Thirty-five librarians and staff members work in three different shifts taking calls from community members in need of food. They log the requests into their computer system, then other county employees deliver food to people in the community.

In the first week alone, the call center fielded 5,000 calls from Schenectady County and beyond. From Bradley’s perspective, it’s not all that different from what these librarians do every day: listen to their patrons and serve their communities.

Bradley has been the library director since 2012, and she has worked for the library in some capacity since 2000. While she’s been running the call center for the past few weeks, she has by no means stopped working to help library patrons, coming up with future programming and trying to anticipate what people will need after the pandemic subsides.

The Gazette spoke with Bradley earlier this month about how the call center came together and what it’s been like to keep up with the rapidly changing needs of the community.

Q: When did you start setting up the first call center?

A: On Friday, March 13, I received a call from our county manager [Rory Fluman] that we were going to have to close the libraries.

Then he said, “Karen, I need you to get some of your library staff together to come in tomorrow morning, as they’re going to have to set up a wellness check call center at the Public Health Department.”

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

So we met at Public Health at 9 o’clock in the morning. They did an orientation with us and said that they had a number of county residents that were in quarantine, and they were required to do these daily wellness checks. … By Monday, they realized due to the volume they were going to need a much bigger system.

We brought up some of our library furniture [and] different supplies because the library is right down the street from the Public Health Department so it was very easy for me to go back and forth. Then it just expanded: County IT staff moved in, putting drops in the ceiling and setting up this whole system. That operation got up and running, [and] we spent about nine days there.

They quickly [saw that we were] going to have a really widespread food issue in our community, whether they be those are individuals that are in mandatory quarantine or precautionary quarantine.

On Monday, March 23, Rory called me and said, “Well I need you to get in your car and head up to the new Boys & Girls Club. We are going to have to set up food distribution.” I reported right up here and … we started mapping out this system. It started with a call center.

Q: When the library staff members had to shift to manning the call center, what was the transition like for them?

A: [There] was some concern when I spoke with the staff. There [was] definitely a fear factor. I would say the most wonderful thing is the fact that Shane Bargy, executive director here at the Boys & Girls Club, basically has turned over his facility to this operation so that there was tons of space here.

People were very comfortable once they came here and saw what this was like. It’s an amazing production when you see the food unloaded in the morning. It all has to be unpacked and it’s this massive assembly with putting together these bags of food.

It only took one shift to work and take the calls to see what the impact was of the people calling in. It’s very much like what we do with the library: We handle calls all day, every day at all nine locations.

Q: Any sort of unexpected calls or needs? 

A: We never expected that we were going to get calls from all across New York state. The first time somebody said, “I just got a call from Queens.” Then we started getting more calls from Brooklyn, from [other spots in] New York City. Most of them heard about it on Facebook and many people up here have family down there, so they were calling and telling their sister in Queens about it. I realize that some of these people have no idea that we were in Schenectady, New York. Then we [got] calls from all over the Capital Region and we ended up putting together a sheet with other numbers [of resources to call], which is very much like what we do at the library. We connect people to things.

Q: While the library has been closed, what are you thinking about in terms of next steps?

A: Out of the busyness of the day, you at times can’t help but think toward the future. We worry about our patrons, about our regular patrons, whether they’re the book-lover people that are rushing in and grabbing [books], or the ones that spend their days with us that are struggling in life. We’ve thought a lot about them. Where are they? How are they doing? So many in the community were living on the edge to begin with and stressed.

Of course, we’ve thought about library programs. To be thinking about going forward for us, it’s like, “What is the world going to look like when we go back out and reopen?” I spend a lot of time thinking about that. Life as we knew it is in the past, [and] post-COVID, the kinds of programs that we offer might need to be very different.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: Have there been some rewarding moments?

A: The rewarding moment is every conversation, this connection that you made with a member of the community and having empathy, listening to what they have to say, and their gratitude. Some are calling back to thank us. I think [it’s] knowing the impact we’re having on a person’s life — to know that you’ve made a difference in somebody’s life.

Categories: Rising to the Challenge, Schenectady County, Special Sections

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