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Work & Purpose

Where to Get Help Finding a Job: The Virtual Library

How to tap libraries during COVID-19 to become a stronger job applicant


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

Public libraries have long been known for helping people with job searches, through one-on-one résumé advice and classes teaching computer skills. Since many libraries have been closed physically due to the pandemic, they’re now often offering job-search help virtually so people can benefit from the resources at home.

“They decided career services has to continue, because there are too many people getting laid off or furloughed, and they’re having trouble — not just with completing unemployment, but figuring out what they can do next,” says Ebony Hogan, career services supervisor for the Cuyahoga County Public Library in the greater Cleveland area.

Adds Ramiro Salazar, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association: “Some of the folks that were impacted the most are those that are the most vulnerable and that represent lower income levels.” So, library staffers have talked to them by phone and video to connect them to unemployment assistance.

How Libraries Are Helping the Newly Unemployed

Many who’ve found themselves out of work during the pandemic were unprepared to launch job searches and have been reaching out to their libraries for help.

“We did notice that we had a surge in calls in all age groups, but especially for workers that were over fifty, after the pandemic occurred.”

“People just want to know that they can talk to someone to guide them,” Hogan says. “Some of these individuals who are unemployed have been employed their whole lives, so this is something totally new. You’ve got to deal with the grief of it all, and then you’ve got to figure out how to get re-motivated so that you can get employed.”

Tracey Wanek updated her resume with help from the library
Tracey Wanek updated her resume with help from the library

To assist, libraries have been creating new job-hunting content through online videos and e-seminars. Others have tweaked the services they’d normally offered in person, such as one-on-one meetings with career specialists.

Tracey Wanek, 50, of Omaha, learned how to update her résumé recently after attending Zoom seminars from Do Space, a nonprofit technology library which provides its services for free nationwide. She hadn’t updated her resumé in 15 years and was worried it might look out-of-date.

“The styles of preferred résumés have definitely evolved, and it’s going to look incredibly dated if you’re looking for work now [with an old résumé],” Wanek says. “If you’ve been in the same job for thirty years, you might not even know how to articulate what you do. It helps to take a résumé refresher.”

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Do Space had a YouTube presence before the pandemic, but its videos hadn’t been aimed at job seekers. Since COVID-19, though, Do Space employees have created dozens of YouTube videos to let users enhance their job searches and build on their computer skills to make themselves more marketable.

Assisting Job Seekers Over 50

This kind of assistance has been especially valuable to job seekers over 50.

“We did notice that we had a surge in calls in all age groups, but especially for workers that were over fifty, after the pandemic occurred,” Hogan says.

During the pandemic, many libraries have been permitting online access to their job-hunting resources, including password-protected databases which users can log into with their library card numbers.

Some career services departments in public libraries have moved their one-on-one meetings online, including the Arlington Public Library in Virginia, which uses a mix of Zoom and phone calls for job seekers.

“They get to look at their résumé with a volunteer who is experienced at looking at résumés, [and] people receive a personalized listing of resources,” says Kathryn Oberg, its college and career librarian.

Oberg says her staff is helping job hunters avoid the black hole of online job postings.

“It is estimated that many personalized job search engines only contain ten percent of open jobs or are only the source for ten percent of hires. We send personalized suggestions for finding the hidden job market depending on the industry,” she notes. “For someone in IT, we might send them to specialized websites like Dice.com but also to recruiters who specialize in hiring tech experts.”

Mock Interviews and YouTube Computer-Skill Classes

Certain libraries, like Cuyahoga County Public Library, are letting people do mock interviews by video to help applicants prepare to meet with prospective employers virtually.

“We can not only give them feedback on how they answer questions, but we can also give them feedback on their nonverbals,” Hogan says.

Some job seekers have found libraries’ computer-skill classes valuable, too.

“We’ve already published over a hundred totally free classes on our YouTube,” says Rebecca Stavick, executive director of Do Space. “The basic tech classes have been really popular: Microsoft Word, Excel, intermediate Excel. We’ve seen quite a lot of people attending those programs.”

For Those Without Computers

But libraries have recognized that not everyone has computers. Before the pandemic, some of their patrons only had computer access when they visited the library. So, libraries are offering career-services appointments by phone, too.

“Our staff has reported that people without computers have been extremely happy with our help over the phone,” says Paula Brehm-Heeger, director of the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County. “We are intent on helping our communities reduce the Digital Divide.”

Brehm-Heeger’s library has partnered with a local public access television station to provide content for people without internet access.

“The station aired programming to let people know about the job-hunting resources that the library provides, with a call-in phone number for viewers so they could make appointments to speak with a librarian via phone, e-mail or chat,” says Brehm-Heeger.

New Rules as Libraries Reopen

Now that some states are relaxing their shelter-at-home guidelines, libraries in certain places are reopening their buildings, once again providing in-person assistance to job hunters.

San Antonio in mid-June opened nine branch libraries specifically to provide access to computers and high-speed internet, says Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio Public Library.

“We made it a priority, even though, in terms of our phased approach to reopening, we were initially going to avoid having people coming to the buildings. [But] we know that the Digital Divide is a real barrier, and especially as people start getting ready to look for jobs, they need high-speed internet,” Salazar says.

To reopen safely, some libraries like Salazar’s are requiring people using its public computers to sign up for time slots.

“After they’re done with their session, we have a protocol to disinfect and make sure that surfaces have been cleaned for our next users,” Salazar says. “We’re taking precautions. We want to protect the employees and the public.”

By Lisa Fields
Lisa Fields is a writer who covers psychology and health matters as they relate to the workplace. She publishes frequently in WebMD and Reader’s Digest. Read more of her work at Writtenbylisafields.com.

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