When a local college student was having trouble finding a quiet place to study in the home she shares with her sister last summer, the staff at Northborough Free Library knew how to help.
“We loaned her a Wi-Fi hotspot that enabled her to do her school work in a nice, quiet, well-lit spot in the basement that was out of range of the house’s regular Wi-Fi,” said library director Jenn Bruneau.
The service typifies the creative strategies Boston area public libraries have devised to solve the unprecedented challenges COVID-19 pose for their patrons and their own operations.
Although begun as short-term workarounds, officials expect many of those pandemic-inspired innovations — from virtual and outdoor programming to expanded loans of electronic devices and contact-less checkouts ― to remain in use long after the health crisis ends.
“When you are challenged, you find ways to rise to the challenge. I think libraries have done that,” said Megan Allen, Quincy’s director of libraries. “We have more tools to use now than we did before.”
LIke many many public institutions, libraries had to immediately retool in response to the pandemic, replacing in-person service with curbside pickups, all-virtual programming, and, in some cases outdoor activities.
“It was kind of a roller coaster year,” Allen said. “There was constant innovation and trying to find ways to serve people’s needs however we could.”
“There is something in librarians’ DNAs that they always find a way to deliver services,” said Rob Favini, head of library advisory and development for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
By last spring, nearly all libraries had reopened their doors and recently, most were back to full hours and many had resumed indoor programming, Favini said.
With the rapid spread of Omicron across the nation, libraries in late December were watching developments closely to see how it might impact their services, according to Favini.
“We are hearing a little bit of anxiousness,” Favini said on Dec. 20, of local library officials. “I don’t think at this point we’re going to get to libraries closing doors. We are hearing some thinking they may have to reduce hours at some point.”
Library leaders are “frustrated,” he added. “After getting to this point, now comes Omicron.”
Several local library directors interviewed Dec. 20 said they were planning no immediate service changes — or only limited ones — as a result of Omicron.
“This is a rapidly changing situation, but it feels different than a year ago because people are vaccinated,” Allen said. “Obviously we will follow the guidelines of our local health authorities and to date, I have not heard from them about changes in our protocols here. ... We just will be flexible but certainly my preference is to remain open and provide services in a normal sort of way.”
Meanwhile, many of the improvised services that carried libraries through the first two years of the pandemic continue.
The Peabody Institute Library, for example, intends to continue a contactless checkout option that began last spring.
“It’s really nice,” Cate Merlin, Peabody’s public library director, said of the system, in which books that patrons order online are placed on a shelf for them to pick up and self checkout when they visit. “A lot of people are enjoying the efficiency of it, and it’s also more private.”
Northborough also expects to retain a self-checkout option it began for patrons who wanted to avoid face-to-face interaction. “It’s a change for the better,” said Bruneau, a board member and past president of the New England Library Association.
Digital programming also promises to be an enduring innovation.
“I think libraries have found an audience for it and have been successful doing it,” Favini said. “Quite a few are saying they plan to keep that as part of the mix.”
By presenting events online, libraries were able to reach a larger audience, he said, noting that hundreds of people joined a virtual conversation Shrewsbury’s public library hosted in January 2020 with Ibram Kendi, the best-selling author and founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. “Usually on a good night for a library author talk, you get 50 people.”
Quincy’s Thomas Crane Public Library featured a full virtual programming schedule during the pandemic’s first year. Indoor programs returned this fall, but the library is continuing some virtual-only programs, and expects to offer others in hybrid form: in-person and virtual.
“We are trying to make our services and programs as accessible as we can, and that includes keeping an online component,” Allen said. “One of the things we discovered during COVID is that we had a higher attendance for online programs — people who were not able to come in person before because of transportation or timing could participate online.”
Going forward, Peabody intends to offer patrons the option of seeing many of its live programs online. As an example, a literature talk last spring — the latest in a periodic series by Harvard professor Theo Theoharis — was held in person and on Zoom.
“We are providing access to people who can’t come in, are not comfortable coming in, don’t want to drive after dark, or don’t live in the area,” Merlin said.
Northborough is not planning to regularly offer future programs online since its patrons have shown they prefer in-person events. But Bruneau envisions the library’s new online capabilities will come in handy.
“If we have to close the library or the weather is a little bad — or if the spread of Omicron required it — we can always shift to a virtual option as opposed to canceling the program,” she said.
Local library patrons also can expect more opportunities to participate in outdoor programs, officials said.
Patrons responded enthusiastically to outdoor programming in Quincy and “we will continue to do it when the weather is right,” Allen said. As with outdoor dining, people enjoy being in the open air and “some programs work particularly well outside — messy programs like arts and crafts or science with lots of hands-on activity.”
Merlin said that when the Peabody library presented programs in its courtyard this year, “We learned what a valuable space it is.” As a result, the library is seeking grants to convert the courtyard to a permanent “community outdoor learning area” featuring such amenities as a pergola, a brick patio, and a community vegetable garden.
“It’s a good enough space; now we want it to be a wonderful space,” she said.
Another pandemic-fueled trend — the greater emphasis many libraries placed on electronic services — also looks to be a lasting change.
Ebook checkouts in Peabody went “through the roof” during the pandemic, and the library shifted more of its budget to those resources, Merlin said. More recently, it purchased 20 Chromebook laptops, and added 10 portable Wi-Fi hotspots to its existing 20 to lend to patrons.
“I think people are more comfortable doing things online,” Merlin said. “That’s not going to stop.”
Northborough in 2020 purchased six portable hotspots and through a grant, later added 10 more. “They’ve been really popular with more people working remotely,” said Bruneau, whose library is also acquiring 10 laptops for patrons to borrow.
Before Omicron’s arrival, life within library buildings had slowly been returning to normal.
After annual visits to libraries statewide plunged from an average of 36 million pre-pandemic to about 5 millionduring the last fiscal year, Favini said visitor traffic was returning, though “we’re not there yet.”
Foot traffic in Quincy’s main library has edged up since it reopened in July, but remains at about 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels, according to Allen. Bruneau said Northborough’s visitor numbers remain 15 percent to 20 percent down from normal, and Merlin said Peabody’s remain down 25 percent.
Ellen Church, book sale chair of the Friends of the Northborough Library, said in early December that the library was still relatively quiet, but as an active patron, she was excited to be back.
“During the pandemic, I borrowed books electronically and read more on my tablet, but I don’t like that — I’m pretty much done with it. Now I can get what I want — a real book, a hard copy,” she said.
Meanwhile, the pandemic has not permanently derailed — and may even have fortified — the effort by libraries in a digital age to redefine themselves as community gathering places, some officials believe.
“People spent such large chunks of time during the pandemic being isolated from other people. I think there is a really pent-up longing to be in communal space with other people,” Allen said. “Libraries had started to play that role in communities very well and I think it will come back.”
As part of that effort, Quincy’s library recently resumed a program suspended during the pandemic. At its main building, it hosts periodic after-hour social events for adults 21-and-over with a cash bar, free refreshment, and live music.
Allen said the library tentatively plans to hold the next of those social events in the spring, but may move it to a later date if the COVID-19 situation worsens.
“It helps people feel connected,” she said. “There are a lot of new apartments and condos in Quincy and we are hoping some of the new residents will come.”
“Anything people can do to come back together and get that face-to-face interaction is so helpful and beneficial to the community,” Bruneau said. “I think that is a core function of public libraries.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.