Staff Stories: Ashlee Norton – Ask the Library

Originally shared as part of Halifax Public Libraries' 2020-21 Annual Report

On March 31, 2020, Halifax Public Libraries launched Ask the Library: an easily-accessible, fully staffed phone and email service.

At a time when reliable health and wellness information was critical, and a caring voice could mean the difference between uncertainty and security, there was no better place to turn than the Library.

Community Librarian for Eastern Shore District Libraries (Musquodoboit Harbour and Sheet Harbour) and the Musquodoboit Valley Library Office, Ashlee Norton, helped lead the charge in establishing the Ask the Library service.

"The most challenging part of being closed to the public was dealing with the fear and uncertainty around how to keep our customers, our staff, and our community as a whole safe. It was also really challenging to be suddenly, physically distant from community members that we know rely on us so much," Ashlee says.

This service was established to fill the gap created by the Library’s doors being closed—continuing to answer questions that would typically pop up at Info Desks, helping new tablet users conquer the art of e-book reading, helping a newcomer access Government services, or sharing a joke and a smile with regulars experiencing isolation and loneliness.

Across branches and departments—from Administration, to IT, to Branch Services, staff quickly sprang to action, setting up the service. Staff who would normally support community members directly in-branch, took shifts on the phone line; offering friendly and reliable connection and guidance. This updated Ask the Library approach continued when the Library first reopened, and will remain a permanent service moving forward.

There was a real sense of shared urgency [in establishing the service]. We all knew that being able to reconnect and provide reassurance and resources to our community as quickly as possible was the most important thing we could do.” 

Ashlee notes that many people reaching out in the early days of Ask the Library and province-wide lockdown, were seeking help with new technologies the pandemic essentially forced them to learn to use for everyday tasks—tablets, computers, video conferencing software. Tasks like ordering groceries, filing taxes online, or applying for the CERB benefit, became Library support specialties.

"I had so many people tell me over the phone, 'I'm so glad you're here! Thank you so much!' And it was really gratifying to hear, even though we couldn't be physically together—to know we could somehow maintain that connection."

After a full year of service (April 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021), Ask the Library has responded to more than 16,000 public inquiries—that’s 43 personalized responses a day!

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Watch Ashlee's Story