When the Abington Public Library had to shutter its building March 13 due to COVID-19, the move came as a blow to its staff members.
“Not being able to provide the town with the open and welcoming community center — which is what libraries are — is heartbreaking,” said Deborah Grimmett, the town’s library director.
But it did not take long for the library to find a way to continue serving the public despite the pandemic.
“We quickly adapted,” Grimmett said, noting that within days of the closure, staff — working from home — began shifting many of the library’s programs to a virtual format, including book club meetings, author visits, and story times. The library also expanded its digital book, audio, and movie offerings, and plans a virtual summer reading program.
Most recently, Abington began offering curbside pickup of books and other materials on May 26,when libraries statewide were allowed to begin providing that service under the state’s reopening plan.
Libraries will be allowed to offer limited public access to their buildings during the next phase of the state’s reopening plan, with some expected to begin doing so by August. No projected dates have been set for when libraries can fully reopen.
Despite the temporary loss of their facilities, municipal libraries across Massachusetts have been at full throttle through the health crisis, rolling out new and expanded remote services to compensate for the loss of in-person ones even as they prepare for gradual reopening.
“It’s incredibly difficult for everyone,” said Celeste Bruno, communications director for the state Board of Library Commissioners. “One thing we’ve all learned from the pandemic is that human interaction is essential.”
But she is not surprised libraries were able to adjust. “It’s the sort of thing libraries do,” Bruno said. “It’s all about meeting the needs of their communities, and when the community couldn’t come through the door, libraries got online and started making this happen.”
In addition to their virtual programming events — which are cataloged on a new website maintained by the Board of Library Commissioners — libraries have continued to serve residents through loans of eBooks and audiobooks, a service expanded statewide last year.
“Our eBook borrowing is through the roof,” said Paul Engle, Brockton’s library director, a trend also reported by other libraries.
“We are incredibly busy,” said Mark Contois, Framingham’s library director, noting that when the library closed, “We pivoted and became a 24-7 electronic library.”
The city’s library patrons now can participate through Zoom in programs ranging from knitting club sessions to stretching classes and history talks. The library also launched a YouTube channel to air story times for adults and other entertainment, expanded its online databases, and began a new feature in which patrons can chat online with a library staff member.
Library staff also have stepped out of their normal roles to make wellness calls to local seniors, answer 311 city information calls, and create a website guide on shopping at supermarkets and pharmacies during the pandemic. And the library temporarily converted its outdoor book return bins to donation boxes for face masks sewn by local residents.
“We are big believers that the public library is the heart of the community, and we knew there was a great deal we could do to help the community in a time of need,” Contois said.
Not only are the Brockton library’s story times, book club meetings, poetry readings, and other programs now offered virtually, but staff have converted an entire planned series of events on the centennial of women’s suffrage to an online format. It also distributed 2,000 books to city residents that were purchased or donated by the library’s nonprofit foundation.
“Librarians are service-oriented people so being able to keep ourselves out there even during a pandemic seemed natural,” Engle said.
Salem library director Tara Mansfield said her staff quickly moved onto Zoom such regular live events as playtime for toddlers, bucket drumming, and book groups. Other programs, such as a children’s science experiment demonstration, are offered videotaped on Facebook.
“We were very lucky our staff was so enthusiastic about serving the public while working from home,” she said.
Even as they become more virtual, libraries are busy rolling out contact-free curbside book pickup services in which patrons stop by their libraries to have books left outside for them. (Inter-library loans remain suspended till at least July so patrons can only borrow from their library’s collection).
Libraries also are preparing for restoring public access to their buildings, which for some could begin with opening limited areas this summer.
Installing plexiglass at service desks, reducing seating at tables, providing laptops as an alternative to desk computers, and installing floor markings and signs to regulate foot traffic in the building are all measures libraries are considering to keep staff and patrons safe when their buildings reopen.
“It’s going to look differently,” Mansfield said. “We are continually trying to think of ways to make things contactless.”
Even with those new realities, library officials said they remain hopeful that the long-term evolution of libraries to broader civic institutions remains a viable one.
“Libraries have become community centers, resources for citizenship, tax information, art, music, poetry and dance, all of it. We will get back to that stage,” Engle said, adding that libraries may even emerge from the pandemic “a much better, much safer and much more well-rounded institution.”
“I don’t see us going back to the 1940s when libraries had closed stacks,” Grimmett agreed. “Libraries will survive and flourish because at the end of the day, they are about the people who use them.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.