When Gov. Phil Scott issued his emergency orders that shut down most public spaces last month, the Agency of Commerce stated that libraries were among those services “not considered critical to public health and safety or economic and national security.”
And amid the global pandemic, 183 Vermont libraries closed their doors.
If that sounds like a lot of libraries and a lot of doors, it's helpful to know that the state ranks first in the nation in the number of libraries per capita.
“Libraries are the shared resources of the community,” said Starr LaTronica, the director of Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro. “This is what the community thinks is of value, whether they're physical items or online resources. The community pays for the staff, which is the greatest resource. And the library is there for everyone.”
“There are very few institutions left where that is true. That's what libraries do,” she added. “We find a need in the community and try to fill it or facilitate it.”
But librarians being librarians, closing the doors wasn't the end of it.
In fact, it was only the beginning, certainly in Windham County. The quarantine just moved library services online.
As busy as ever
“My job has changed so much,” said Putney Public Library Director Emily Zervas. “It's been extreme learning. Moving everything online, figuring out how to do lending, when we could, and new modes of contact with our patrons. It's all about just figuring out what we can do to help people.”
Zervas works in the library building three days a week. She gets the mail, pays the bills, and sanitizes the books that have been returned - although there are no fines, and books don't have to be returned.
At least one librarian thinks the quarantine came at the right time: lambing season.
“I have time to be at the library and time to be here for my sheep,” said Guilford Free Library Director Catherine Wilken.
Very few library workers have been laid off or furloughed.
“Everyone is working,” LaTronica said. “Some people have re-purposed. We have one staff member delivering senior meals and boxes of food because it's difficult to perform the usual tasks of the position. We have programmed all of our phone extensions so they ring at home.”
“The same is true for reference and electronics,” she added. “I've had quite a few calls at my house, and our reference librarian, Jeanne Walsh, has fielded some interesting reference calls. One involved complex chemistry.”
Librarians have been taking advantage of the break in customer service to improve things for the customers when they return.
“I'm doing a lot of projects,” Zervas said. “I'm upgrading the software on the patrons' computers. I'm doing other things that are difficult to do when there are a lot of people here. And I work two days a week from home and run all our programs.”
At Brooks, the staff is also upgrading the software on the public computers.
But professional development has taken center stage. Walsh has been “working on activities for our staff, so they can hone their skills,” LaTronica said.
“Because we're such a vibrant and dynamic library, it doesn't allow for a lot of time for professional development. So this is a chance for our staff to hone their skills online. She has been devising a wonderful curriculum,” she continued.
And Walsh is using some of her time to create a community resource database.
“It's an inventory of all the wonderful organizations and agencies that serve individuals in the Brattleboro area,” LaTronica said. “It's something we've had as a vision for a long time. We know our greatest resource is each other, so this is a way to tap into the human resources that are sometimes more valuable than a book.”
“Our hope is to have and use and contribute to it for years to come,” LaTronica added. “We're starting with critical needs organizations and then expanding into more cultural resources, like where to find an art class.”
Not forgetting the printed word
Until the quarantine ends, no books are available from Brooks, the Rockingham Free Public Library, the Pettee Memorial Library in Wilmington, or Putney.
But Guilford is still filling patrons' requests. So is the Lydia Taft Pratt Library in Dummerston.
“We're preparing books for people to pick up at our white box,” Wilken said. “Parents call and ask for a selection of books for children. Some people call with a big list.”
When patrons are done, they leave the books in the library's green box.
“When this whole thing started, I sent out the April newsletter full of the new books we've bought in the last two months. So everyone got the list. People have been calling and borrowing books and movies. We will deliver books to people at home, if that's what they need.”
When books are returned, Wilkens sanitizes them for safety.
“And we let them sit for 72 hours,” Wilkens said. “We're just trying to operate as normal. I don't think it's dangerous, because we don't have any face-to-face contact with anybody.”
In announcing its closing, the Lydia Taft Pratt Library posted on its website:
“We will, however, be offering 'curbside pick-up' and home delivery of books for individuals that are home-bound during our regular weekday hours. We will not be able to offer this service on Saturdays. Please do not return materials to the library at this time.”
Zoom, an online videoconferencing service, has been a huge help in helping libraries maintain contact with their customers.
“We have two story times a week: one for older kids ages 6-11, and our traditional pre-school story time,” Zervas said. “We have knitting night twice a month, and there's a mending bee.”
“People are hanging out and knitting on Zoom,” she observed. “Mostly, it's the same group of people who met in person, so there's a lot of rapport among those folks. People say it's really important to them, so I've thrown a lot of weight behind it.”
Also in Putney, Meg Mott, professor emerita at Marlboro College, is continuing her series of lectures about the amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
“She's doing the Reconstruction Amendment in April,” Zervas said. “We have lively conversations.”
“And our writer in residence, Michelle Blake, is running a Death and Dying discussion group. When she asked if people still wanted to do that during this heavy time, they did,” she said.
“April is Poetry Month, so we have two programs on the last two Thursdays of the month on the Structure of Poetry.
“And we just finalized a talk by the fashion historian of the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the history of the caftan on Wednesday, April 29, at 7 p.m.”
Anybody can get the links to our programs by subscribing to the library's weekly newsletter at putneylibrary.org/sign-up-for-our-email-newsletter.
“That's the only way people can get the links to the programs,” Zervas said.
Libraries are guiding their patrons to online resources.
“We're working on beefing up our services and our offerings while we're closed,” LaTronica said. “So we've put extra money into downloadable materials instead of buying physical books. People will be able to use them even when we reopen.”
Brooks and Putney, for example, are now offering free full or limited access to online entertainment streaming services like Kanopy for independent and foreign films, Mango for online language learning, and RBDigital.
RBDigital provides client libraries with online books, classes, and Acorn TV, which maintains a large database of British and Australian television programs. Access to all this is only by library card.
Zervas said her board has allocated additional funding to provide more downloadable e-books and audiobooks.
Many libraries are making new library cards available online and by phone.
“Many resources require a Rockingham Library card,” said Celina Houlné, director of the Rockingham Free Public Library, in a press release. “Residents, property owners, and [Windham Northeast Supervisory Union] students and teachers can apply for a free temporary digital card. If you need to renew your card, contact the Library, and one of our librarians will assist you.”
Bridging the 'digital divide'
Ever since the internet was introduced, people have been talking about the “digital divide.” Now that internet access has become essential - it's close to being a utility, just like power and water - the situation has become much, much worse.
In Vermont, internet access is spotty, at best. Some people can't get online. Some people can't afford to. Others are stymied by the technology involved and refuse to learn. In a quarantine situation, not having the internet means you are completely cut off.
In places where internet signals are difficult to use, libraries are keeping their high-power wireless internet signals going all day and night. The signals are usually strong enough that they can be picked up outside the library building.
“Our parking lot has been really busy because you can get a really good signal,” Zervas said. “I've been really impressed that patrons have learned how to use digital. It's good to see them seeing each other and engaging in good conversations. It's keeping some normalcy.”
In Brattleboro, LaTronica joked that now that there is free parking downtown, a person can pull up to the library in their car and set up a home office.
“And as the weather gets better, we have concrete benches out front,” LaTronica said. “Bring a cushion. Bring a folding chair. Our Wi-Fi is on 24/7.”
The Pettee library in Wilmington has also put many of its services online. There, patrons can access digital materials, such as e-books and downloadable audiobooks from RBDigital.
People who have resisted the digital world, especially seniors, are having a change of heart, LaTronica said.
“The internet has become a necessity, so there's less resistance,” LaTronica said. “People may not want to dive deeply into it, but I think people have realized how important it is.”
“Seniors can [videoconference] with their grandchildren, keep in touch through Facebook, get information quickly, or file for so many things that you have to do online,” she said. “Once employers started saying you have to apply for jobs online, even seniors who are retired but might want to work part-time have had to learn how to use the internet.”
A 'blur of work'
All the librarians are anxiously waiting for their libraries to be open.
“I'm really looking forward to providing books and more of the services we usually provide, even if it's a slow rollout,” Zervas said. “And who knows, the virtual programs might continue after we reopen our building, if we're advised to still not gather in groups.”
In the meantime, librarians are bending over backwards to continue serving their patrons. Days go by in a blur of work. For example, Houlné wanted to be interviewed for this story, but she was booked solid with phone and Zoom meetings. She apologized and sent a press release.
LaTronica says her work has been nonstop.
“The other day I did not know what day it was,” LaTronica said. “I'm absolutely consumed by communications. I'm speaking to town officials, librarians in the area, and the public. I spend all day on email.”
“I always thought this whole ergonomic thing was a laugh, but now I hurt all day because I'm sitting on a wooden chair and working on a wooden table on a small laptop,” she said. “Some days, my hands felt as if they were on fire.”
Library patrons can join activities on Facebook, another way to engage the community. Brooks, for example, is getting together a garden initiative via the social networking site.
“We're going to engage the community by distributing sunflower seeds to plant all over town,” LaTronica said. “We're working with one of our patrons, who has volunteered to distribute sunflower seeds in a way that is safe. And we have 75 packets to give to preschoolers to plant on their spring break. It's a way to engage the community.”
Many studies have proven that people have a need a certain amount of social interaction to stay mentally healthy. Libraries provide that.
In the meantime, with families sequestered together, LaTronica suggested that now is a good time to tell stories.
“Tell your family stories when you're at home with your kids,” LaTronica said. “Tell about that crazy Aunt Ruth, or the time you got into trouble, or about the brother who is a hero and what he did. It is so important for our family culture. Family stories are really, really treasures. Nothing can be more bonding and bring the family together.”
And that is what LaTronica hopes that the library can do on a larger scale during the pandemic.
“We recognize that a chief component of the library is its presence throughout the community,” LaTronica said. “Even if the social interaction is with other patrons or the staff. We miss that, and I think other people do, too. So please send us an email. Give us a call. We're happy to have a chat.”