COVID-19

Making a Difference: Curbside pickups and online programming are among adaptations at local libraries

This isn’t your grandparents’ library. Heck, today’s libraries aren’t even the libraries they were a mere three months ago.

Thank COVID-19 for that.

Ever since closing their doors in mid-March because of the deadly worldwide threat posed by the novel coronavirus, libraries, like businesses, governments and just about everyone else, have had to adjust on the fly and be creative in how they go about operating amid social distancing restrictions. Even before the pandemic, libraries were in a sense always open, whether their doors were closed or not. All one had to do was go to the library’s website.

That digital availability has come in handy over the past three months as libraries, with their buildings shuttered to patrons, have reinvented themselves and ratcheted up their online offerings. While the physical doors remain closed to visitors, libraries’ digital doors may be open wider than ever before as they have transitioned to online programming.

Working at half-staff strength in their buildings because of government restrictions, libraries have explored new ways to serve their communities. Patrons may check out audio books, e-books and magazines from the comfort of their own homes. They can tap into databases for movies. They can access Zoom programming for classes and book discussions.

Libraries have been making greater use of social media, such as Facebook. In short, they have been changing and adapting to conditions.

“We’re still doing library stuff, it’s just we’re doing it at arm’s length,” said Lisa Richland, director of Floyd Memorial Library.

Ms. Richland plans to retire this year after 30 years at the Greenport library. She saw her library add a digital catalog 30 years ago and offer books in Spanish 20 years ago. Now, during these trying times, the library has expanded its subscriptions to digital resources.

“Libraries change all the time,” she said. “Libraries are responsive organizations because we’re community service organizations. We respond to changes in the community and we respond to changing demand.”

Southold Free Library director Caroline MacArthur called libraries “some of the most adaptable institutions on the planet.”

Among the changes libraries have unrolled are curbside pickups for materials. Mattituck-Laurel Library director Jeff Walden said about 45 to 50 bags of items were put out in his library’s lobby last week during a “soft rollout” of the curbside service and another 25 bags were distributed Monday, the first official day of the service.

Floyd Memorial Library doesn’t offer curbside pickup yet — for a very good reason. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a curb right now,” said Ms. Richland.

Work to replace the sidewalk and curb outside the library was originally scheduled to start in the third week of March, just as COVID-19 numbers began climbing on Long Island. “Timing is everything,” said Ms. Richland. So, that work was put off and didn’t begin until June 1. Ms. Richland expects the project to be completed next week.

With Long Island in Phase 2 of New York State’s COVID-19 economic recovery program, libraries may not open their doors to the public now, but that doesn’t mean the demand for library materials has dropped. On the contrary, library officials say.

Riverhead Free Library has seen a dramatic increase in downloading activity. “We’ve had excellent stats,” said director Kerrie McMullen-Smith.

From March to May, she said, the library has seen its electronic database usages soar from 1,506 users to 3,554. Login sessions for universal online classes jumped from 636 to 1,721. Use of Kanopy, a video streaming service, leapt from 723 to 1,609. Furthermore, Ms. McMullen-Smith said she was told that countywide numbers for e-books doubled in that time.

“I was so happy to see that the community still looks to the library, they still look for service, they still for answers, they still look for classes to take their children,” she said. “It’s good to see that.”

Libraries, however, still lack something they will not have until Phase 3 arrives — face-to-face connections with patrons.

“There’s a very, very big social aspect that is missing, that hands-on experience, you know,” Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library director Rosemary Winters said. “We have all been pushing this for years, but the library really does serve as a community center, and it’s an opportunity for people to sit down, relax, leisurely meet their friends there.”

Ms. Richland said libraries are “community-oriented, so it’s very hard for us when we cannot be face to face with our library patrons. We like to hear how the grandchildren are. We like to know that someone has come out of the hospital. We want to know whether tulips are blooming, and we’re missing that. We’re missing all of those interpersonal activities.”

Earlier this year Southold Free Library completed a major renovation that, ironically, was designed to make the facility more user friendly for social activities. A ribbon-cutting ceremony had been scheduled for March 29. “Of course, it didn’t happen,” said Ms. MacArthur.

Now libraries hope to see Phase 3 declared later this month, allowing patrons to enter libraries on a limited basis. “I’m like a restaurant, you know,” Ms. MacArthur said. “I mean, you can do takeout and it’s wonderful, but it’s not quite the same to be able to offer service dining.”

Those days of March were something of a shock to the library system. “Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition,” Ms. Richland said. “What can I say? We were not prepared for the kind of shutdown that we went through and it took us a while to get our feet under ourselves.”

Now libraries are preparing for Phase 3. While Ms. McMullen-Smith spoke in a phone interview, she explained the noise in the background as being the installation of sneeze guards at service desks, preparation for when patrons return.

“I’m looking forward to everybody actually being able to return and to visit. We all are,” she said. “We’re looking forward to being able to see everyone in person.”