With buildings closed, local libraries pivot to online services
By Meghan Foley Sentinel Staff Mar 30, 2020
At first it was just taking some precautions while keeping the town library open.
Returned books and DVDs were being quarantined before being put back on the shelves, all March and April programs were canceled, high-touch surfaces were being disinfected regularly throughout the day, and people visiting the library were asked to be in good health and to practice social distancing as much as possible.
That was Monday, March 16.
Two days later, as the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming more apparent, Catherine Callegari, director of the Gay-Kimball Library in Troy, had to make the decision she had been trying to avoid. She would have to close the library until at least April 6. With New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order going into effect Friday, it will now be much longer.
“I held out on closing it a lot longer than other libraries in the state,” Callegari said by phone Friday. “But it became clear it would be irresponsible to stay open.”
Troy, like other small, rural towns in the Monadnock Region, depend on their libraries to be community resources, whether providing space for a weekly book club meeting or children’s story time, or providing a reliable Internet access for residents to do job searches and file employment applications.
“It makes me sad and frustrated that we can’t be there for our patrons physically, and I know my staff is too. The digital aspect of life can’t replace the physical contact and experiences as simple as touching a book,” Callegari said. “We also have people who
ome in to use the Internet and fax stuff, and those are important services.”
But until the COVID-19 pandemic passes, it’s the digital aspect of life that Callegari and other librarians locally and across the state have had to focus on to remain in touch with their communities. This includes changing how people sign up for library cards — a process usually done in person — boosting content available on library websites, increasing social media presence, and pushing back due dates of books or other materials checked out previously.
Following Gov. Chris Sununu’s announcement Thursday of the stay-at-home order, which also requires non-essential businesses to close until May 4, the N.H. Library Trustees Association sent out an email Friday stating that library buildings should close by the end of that day to be in compliance with the directive.
“That means those public libraries that are currently offering curbside pick-up should discontinue that service, and where appropriate library staff may work from home,” the email said.
The email noted that the association appreciates the many ways libraries had sought to continue serving their communities as the pandemic began to spread across the state, “but now is the time to move completely to online services.”
The Keene Public Library won’t reopen until at least May 4, according to its website. It has also suspended curbside pickup and is asking people not to return materials to the library until further notice. Due dates and card expiration dates have been extended until June 1.
The Jaffrey Public Library went 100 percent virtual on March 21, following its final curbside pickup, Library Director Julie Perrin said in a phone interview Friday. More than 1,700 items were checked out from the library during the curbside pickups, double what normally leaves the building in a week, she said. These included 350 children’s books to go home with Jaffrey Grade School students for remote learning, she said. Library staff also supplied craft kits for children to take home, she said.
Switching to all digital has involved the library’s not only ramping up its social media presence but also adding new digital resources and databases that can be accessed from its website, and transitioning in-person programs such as story time, Artist Afternoon and Mad Scientist to online formats, Perrin said. A virtual reference desk, which includes technology help and tutorials, has been established, she said.
“I think we’re all scrambling to add as many virtual services as we can, and taking our in- person services and making them accessible in a virtual environment,” she said.
At the Peterborough Public Library, staff had pivoted their focus to creating virtual programs and promoting the library’s large electronic collection that includes e-books, audio books, music, television shows and movies, Library Director Corinne Chronopoulos said by phone Friday.
Three book groups that normally meet at the library had already begun meeting online via the platform Zoom, and plans are in the works to launch new virtual programs such Ask a Librarian and online tech support, she said. Library staff even held an online class about Instagram. A class on Earth Day apps is in the planning stages, she said.
“The cool thing about the library was we were already online and had so many digital services. Our staff is extremely tech savvy, so it was something we could pivot to quickly and just go for it,” she said.
The biggest challenge in having the library closed to the public has been the loss of the human connection that is at the heart of what they do, Chronopoulos said. Many library patrons have Internet access, but for those who don’t, library staff members have been trying to be creative about keeping them connected, she said.
For example, one employee has been calling patrons who are somewhat isolated to check in on them and to see if the library can do anything for them, Chronopoulos said. The employee has also been writing cards to them, she said.
In another case, the library has donated its subscription to The New York Times to a patron who came to the library every day to read the newspaper, she said.
Brainstorming ways the Walpole Town Library can help patrons who don’t have Internet access or who just want to have a physical book to read has been the preoccupation of Library Director Justine Fafara. Realizing how quickly the situation with the pandemic is changing, Fafara said she had been encouraging people to stock up on the library’s books, DVDs and other materials.
“We are so saddened to have to stop this much loved service, but we are taking the Governor’s Stay-At-Home orders seriously,” Fafara wrote on the library’s website. “The library building will be closed and staff will continue working from home as we create new services to help you all get through this chaotic time.”
She said by phone Friday, “It’s been really hard. We have a really small community, as many towns in New Hampshire do. Everybody really values the face-to-face interaction, and that has been a challenge. I really think social media is our saving grace right now.”