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With Curbside Pickup Allowed, Libraries Sort Out Next Steps

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Abby Adams
  • Abby Adams

When the Platt Memorial Library in Shoreham closed its doors due to the novel coronavirus on March 18, librarian Abby Adams knew she wanted to keep Shoreham's 1,250 residents stocked up with books. How? By delivering them directly.

"Library services were really important to encouraging people to stay home," Adams said. "If we could bring stuff to people, they would be entertained and educated, and they wouldn't feel as trapped at home."

Within a week of the library's physical closure, Adams was taking phone requests from patrons, then loading books and other materials into her car and doing delivery duty around town. She said she felt a little funny at first, dropping packages on people's porches and scurrying away. But "people are so grateful and so positive," she said.

For Vermont's larger libraries, some with thousands of patrons, delivery services are too tall an order. Gov. Phil Scott's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order, banning nonessential trips around town, effectively made their physical books inaccessible.

That changed on April 24, when the governor's office permitted libraries to open for curbside pickup. While the Vermont Department of Libraries quickly issued guidelines for such service, decisions about reopening happen at the local level. As a result, library accessibility still varies dramatically from town to town.

At the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, the staff was "raring to go," codirector Carolyn Brennan said. "We were originally aiming for the middle of May, but we were basically champing at the bit."

Brennan worked through the weekend to make sure the librarians were trained and the building was set up for social distancing, both for staff and patrons coming to pick up library materials.

"We had to figure out how to set up an outdoor space that was handicap accessible. I had to go up to Dick's Sporting Goods and buy a tent," Brennan said. "We had to make sure that we have enough cleaning supplies."

The library reopened for pickup on April 29. In the first two days, Brennan said, the Kellogg-Hubbard lent out 300 books and took in just as many returns. The library saw about 75 patrons a day, a little less than half of its daily visitation in non-pandemic times. Patrons placed requests online, via email or over the phone, and librarians usually had the materials ready for pickup within 24 hours.

"From a staff end, it's very labor-intensive," Brennan said.

Curbside pickup isn't feasible for every library, at least not at this stage. Dana Hart, director of the Ilsley Public Library in Middlebury, wrote in an email to Seven Days that she and the library board decided not to offer curbside pickup for now, though she hopes to get that service up and running by June.

Hart said she was concerned for her staff's health and safety. In her view, Ilsley lacks the staffing necessary to disinfect every item that enters the library. Physical space is also a problem. Ilsley covers 14,700 square feet, roughly a third the size of Burlington's Fletcher Free Library, and Hart wrote that she "was concerned that our physical building could not provide the space necessary for safe social distancing during the 'pickup' times ... Nor do we have the space required to isolate that many materials for a period long enough to ensure the virus could not be living on the materials."

Disinfection is a major concern for every library. When Adams of Platt Memorial started doing her deliveries in Shoreham, there were no library-specific guidelines to tell her how long the virus could live on books. She did her own research, reading scholarly articles about the survival of COVID-19 and other coronaviruses on different surfaces, and concluded that she should keep a book out of circulation for nine days to ensure that it would be safe for the next user. Or coronavirus-free, anyway. You still don't want to eat your dinner off the latest James Patterson novel.

"Library books are not sanitary items," Adams said with a laugh. "They're borrowed by everybody. They're filthy."

The latest research suggests books probably don't need a nine-day quarantine, after all. In a training webinar from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services, experts said 24 hours would most likely suffice.

"For all that [books are] grubby and they change hands a lot, they're not actually great vectors for contagion of any kind," Brennan said. At Kellogg-Hubbard, books are quarantined for 72 hours between readers.

At the Fletcher Free Library, curbside pickup reopened on May 6. (The library had previously offered pickup services for a few days in March before the stay-at-home order went into effect.) Director Mary Danko said the Fletcher isn't accepting returns yet, however; all checked-out materials automatically renew indefinitely.

Like many other libraries, the Fletcher Free used the interval of the stay-at-home order to amp up its online offerings and promote its virtual materials, such as ebooks and the movie-streaming service Kanopy. Librarians became de facto tech support for many Burlington residents who are struggling to adapt to the virtual world. Danko said librarians have coached people via online chat and email, and even over the phone.

Even as libraries are encouraging patrons to look forward, they're also reminding them to look backward. In an article on the Kellogg-Hubbard website, codirector Jessie Lynn and librarian Diane Grenkow wrote about two previous occasions when Vermont libraries adapted to a pandemic that temporarily closed their doors.

During the flu outbreak of 1918, the Kellogg-Hubbard became a volunteer outpost and temporary nursery for children whose parents were sick or dead. The librarian at the time, Evelyn Lease, summed up the experience in the minutes of a 1919 meeting: "All this goes to prove that the library, like other live institutions, has been called to unaccustomed duties, emphasized new values, and attained a broader horizon as a result."

A year before the 1918 flu, Montpelier faced a polio outbreak that closed the library for a few months. All of the books that had been lent to households infected with polio were burned upon their return to the library.

"They knew that it was contagious, but they didn't have the same understanding of how that works," Brennan said. She and other local librarians are grateful that, in the 21st century, they don't have to use such drastic methods to ensure patrons' safety.

In Shoreham, 36 households have signed up so far for book deliveries from Platt Memorial. "We're not a large library," librarian Adams said. "It is one of the advantages of having a small operation, that we can do something like this."

She and her patrons are even finding an upside to the situation. "We're getting a lot of people who want us to pick out books for them, and that's really exciting," Adams said. "That part of it is kind of fun. I've gotten some feedback from families that it feels sort of like having a personal librarian."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Turning a Page | With curbside pickup now allowed, Vermont libraries sort out their next steps"

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