The Ruth Vine Tyler Library has been Rachael Coonradt’s oasis for 14 years, and it has become her refuge for the past four months — even though she hasn’t stepped inside the Midvale building.
The 51-year-old Sandy resident has listened to tales about how bananas came to the United States, the 1971 inmate uprising at the Attica Correctional Facility, and Thurgood Marshall’s defense of four men falsely accused of rape. The stories came courtesy of Salt Lake County Library’s OverDrive service, which gives users access to tens of thousands of volumes — even though the library doors remain closed.
In March, when the coronavirus pandemic struck Utah, Coonradt would assemble puzzles while listening to a library audiobook to keep her hands and mind busy — distracting her from the COVID-19 onslaught.
After protests erupted in May for Black Lives Matter, she helped her father, who has visual deficits, connect to audiobooks online to educate him on the subject.
And these two are hardly alone.
Both electronic book and audiobook checkouts from Salt Lake County libraries have skyrocketed during the coronavirus. E-book distribution has climbed by more than 47%, jumping from 161,839 checkouts in June 2019 to 238,698 last month, according to county data, while audiobook circulation has mushroomed by 36%, rising from 188,465 checkouts to 255,749 over the same time frame.
And, in a sign that customers are turning to topical themes, checkouts of African American nonfiction e-books and audiobooks have more than doubled since June 2019. In fact, from May to June alone, users snatched up 276 more e-books and 689 more audiobooks in that genre — an increase of 84% and 189%, respectively.
Sociology audiobooks have shot up even higher, leaping by more than 500% since June 2019 and more than 260% since February, just before the pandemic began.
Juvenile fiction, self-improvement and, given the campaign season, politics are also growing more popular, with readers checking out about 1,000 more e-books and audiobooks on those topics compared to June of last year.
Lyndi Buehler, an acquisitions librarian, said Salt Lake County libraries have allowed users to reserve and check out more books during this stretch when they have more time on their hands. They now can place up to 10 holds and take out 15 books at a time compared with the pre-pandemic limits of five holds and 10 checkouts.
The rise in demand has prompted Salt Lake County to buy more materials. In June 2019, for instance, county libraries put about $116,000 toward e-book and audiobook purchases. Last month, they spent about $143,000.
County libraries adjusted the budget and issued a hiring freeze in response to the pandemic, officials say, but they haven’t had to lay off employees. They also had to cancel a number of events, explained marketing and communications manager Sara Neal, which resulted in some savings.
“Fortunately,” Neal said, “we’ve been able to take some of our resources and put them to benefit people.”
In June, county libraries started curbside pickup so cardholders can set an appointment to collect physical copies of books.
That’s good news for Annika Machad. The 21-year-old Millcreek resident resorted to library e-books to feed her desire to read — even though she yearned for a break from screens — when she realized Netflix could never fill the voids the pandemic left in her life.
Now, trekking to the Millcreek Community Library has become a highlight of her week.
As a young teenager, Machad and her family would visit the library almost every week. She would browse for hours and fall asleep on a couch, so the new book pickup has been a real pick-me-up.
“We’re going to the library, even though it’s not like actually going into the library, it’s still nice to go,” she said. “You still get that excited feeling of getting your books and getting your haul and taking them home.”
The book pickup delights Coonradt, too. Whether she’s checking out audiobooks, e-books or hard copies, she welcomes the library’s resources.
“I just think all the time how grateful I am that we have the technology that we have, the accessibility that we have,” she said. “[With the library], that’s your tax dollars hard at work right there. It’s worth everything to me to have that access. The library is just the best invention ever.”