Education / Schools

San Benito County Free Library moves online in a big way

Increased digital resources are helping students during the pandemic.
San Benito County Librarian Nora Conte. Photo courtesy of Erin Baxter.
San Benito County Librarian Nora Conte. Photo courtesy of Erin Baxter.
Library online resources. Courtesy of Nora Conte.
Library online resources. Courtesy of Nora Conte.

When COVID-19 initially forced the San Benito County Free Library to shut down, new challenges were met by new resources, enabling patrons to keep up with their reading and research needs.

“We had to switch gears rapidly from a physical presence to a virtual presence,” said County Librarian Nora Conte. “We augmented as quickly as we could with support from the State Library and vendors who lowered prices or offered their services gratis.”

Conte estimated that the library was back up and running within three weeks of the shutdown order in mid-March, pushed in part by necessity.

“Our number one priority was to get the education resources up and running,” she said, “because children were needing it for homework assignments. Everybody was caught off guard, but we all pitched in to try to make it a better situation.”

With its streaming collections of movies, music, and audiobooks, the San Benito County Free Library had already cultivated a computer-savvy group of patrons.

“We circulate 600-1,000 books with our cloud library of e-books,” Conte said. “Not only do people have access to what we buy for online, but also from what other libraries have to offer. It’s a shared resource.”

The library also participates in the Zip Book program, which allows the library to buy books that patrons are interested in but are not carried by the library or available online.

In July, the library began allowing physical books to be checked out through curbside pickup. Patrons can call in and request books, and when the items are pulled from the collection, they are notified and can pick them up without leaving their car.

When the demands of social distancing made it impossible to hold community gatherings, the library moved to put those activities online as well. 

“We have morning and evening storytime, and bilingual storytime too,” Conte said. “We are also looking at other things we would like to do, such as online book and movie discussions. And we have just started our online art classes. We try to set up our lessons so that the materials would be things the kids would have at home, to make it as affordable as possible.”

The library is archiving the lessons on its new YouTube channel, and hopes to add more creative and educational content soon. The library also offers a host of online resources including auto repair sourcebooks, braille and talking book catalogs, a live tutoring service called Brainfuse, online magazines, Kanopy, language lessons through Mango Languages, a database of newspapers called PressReader, and continuing education through Universal Class

“We applied for a grant to build our infrastructure for technology and now have access to resources that were never possible before,“ Conte said. “We have seen a dramatic increase in the use of our various databases, up something like 60%. People want to read, they want to learn things. We can give them a foundation to build their knowledge.”

Much of the library’s focus is on younger readers.

“There is a demand from parents for resources for children,” Conte said. “We know that the library becomes part of their success as they work towards academic achievement. The library is one of the pillars of their education.”

This year, the library was able to hold its summer reading program online, a move it had already been considering.

“Last year we had 350-400 signups and we just did not have room for everyone inside,” she said. “We held it outside, but thought to ourselves, ‘We better start looking into doing this online.’ When the pandemic came along, we signed up for a program called Beanstalk, where the kids could go online and earn their certificates there.”

While not as successful this year, about 250 participated in the program.

Even with the restrictions put on public places and the need for social distancing, Conte said the library’s staff strives to always be available to patrons.

“We are here for people who need us,” she said. “We answer our phones from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. You can call us in the morning and we will try to put the book in your hand that same day. We also welcome suggestions for improving our services.” 

Applications for library cards are available online and used to unlock all the services on the site. Patrons can find out about future classes and other activities by signing up for the library’s Constant Contact email list.


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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink approached me as a photographer by have since encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.