Although the Rutland Free Library has been reopened to the public since June 2 after closing for more than two months as consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not necessarily back to business as usual — but you can still borrow a book.
The physical space has changed significantly, and also the way people use the library. For example, take the entrance, itself: Where there was once a lobby designed to welcome the public inside to explore the stacks, relax in comfortable arm chairs and stay awhile, there is now a down-to-business feel. The entryway now serves as a quarantine area, where bins are filled with returned items. These borrowed materials must sit untouched for three to four days before going back to the shelves, in order to reduce the spread of the virus. A staff member sits at a desk by the front door to help patrons navigate the new layout.
In addition to the differences in how the physical space is used, “There is also a transactional change,” says the library’s director Randal Smathers, since patrons no longer come in to browse but instead, must use curbside services. Smathers says the library now operates more like a concierge service: People pick out their books online ahead of time, and then a staff member retrieves their selections and set them aside to be picked up. While patrons used to take their time visiting the library, “Now,” Smathers says, “they go no farther than the front desk, and then leave.”
Even in its reduced capacity, however, the public has been excited to make use of the library, especially when a lot of people are out of work or have more time at home. While circulation of materials — that is, the checking in and out of books, magazines and videos — is down somewhat over this time last year, there is still consistent demand, and it’s been rising each month since the library reopened. And the use of e-books and audiobooks, which can be accessed online with a library card, has taken off.
The trend is similar at Aldrich Public Library, where librarians have made significant changes to their online catalog. Unlike in Rutland, the Aldrich’s doors are closed to the public, though curbside service is being offered and next month, the library will start allowing patrons to book one-hour time slots to come into the library in person. Polk says the decisions made about reopening have to balance safety with the demand put upon staff.
“With closed stacks,” says Polk, “I can promise I know everyone who has touched an item. In fact, I know the temperature of everyone who touched that item.” But if the library were open to the public, she asks, “Would staff spend their time watching people? Will someone be available to watch and make sure patrons disinfect their hands before touching the books?”
But while Vermonters don’t have to go without their books, libraries are so much more than borrowed reading material. During normal operation, they also provide community meeting spaces, access to technology like computers, internet service and Wi-Fi, outlets for charging electronics, a safe place for children after school, and a warm place for people, including the homeless, to come in from the cold. But during the pandemic, it’s not safe to invite people to linger inside the library, so these additional important community services are not being offered.
It was a loss felt across the country during the national shutdown. In one interesting example, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, a public library in Washington, D.C., kept its bathrooms open to the public for handwashing to help curb the spread of the virus among homeless people, according to a recent story by National Public Radio.
Here in Vermont, the Rutland library is currently providing public restrooms, but users have to give their name in case it’s needed for contact tracing. Beyond that, there’s not much more the library can offer during the pandemic.
“We have a group of people that used to come in and use the library every day,” says Smathers. “We don’t ask if they’re homeless, but clearly some are. In the winter, we’re a warming place for them, but we just can’t be that right now.” It’s the same at the Aldrich library in Barre, which is designated as a day shelter for the local homeless population.
About 30 minutes to the northeast, in the small rural community of Marshfield, Library Director Susan Green felt maintaining access to the library was important, and so she moved immediately to curbside service when Gov. Scott closed all nonessential businesses, a category in which libraries were included.
Green moved to curbside more quickly than most libraries in the state because, for one thing, she knew she could provide books safely. She says, “I decided right away to offer curbside because, if we were allowed to go in grocery stores, I decided that it would be safe to stand outside and hand people their books from 6 feet away.” Green did amend operations in several important ways, however: She stopped taking any returns for a period of time and she sanitized all materials before sending them out. Additionally, she offered home delivery services for families without a car, an offer that two families utilized.
On July 1, Green opened the doors to the public again, although with safety precautions. Only five people are allowed on each level at a time, and people are not invited to sit and color or do puzzles, like they normally would. Hand sanitizer dispensers and plexiglass dividers went up, and, like in Rutland, all returned materials are quarantined for several days before going back on the shelves.
Green also disagreed with the governor’s classification of libraries as nonessential.
“Libraries are essential in my view,” says Green. “When the governor said that libraries were nonessential, there were some librarians who agreed with him, but just as many of us didn’t agree. Some people can’t afford computers, books or movies.” It’s an important point for a community like Marshfield, where enough of the population lives at or below the poverty level to qualify the entire public school for universal free meals.
“Maybe libraries were nonessential to people who can afford those things, but for people who can’t afford them or don’t have access, libraries are essential.”