Although they started out as short-term workarounds, officials expect many of these pandemic-inspired innovations – from virtual and outdoor programming to extended electronic device loans and cashless checkouts. contact – remain in use long after the end of the health crisis.
“When you are challenged, you find ways to meet the challenge. I think the libraries did it, ”said Megan Allen, director of libraries at Quincy. “We have more tools to use now than before. “
Like many public institutions, libraries had to immediately re-equip themselves in response to the pandemic, replacing in-person service with curbside collections, fully virtual programming and, in some cases, outdoor activities.
“It was kind of a roller coaster year,” Allen said. “There was constant innovation and we were trying to find ways to meet the needs of people as we could. “
“There is something in the DNA of librarians that they always find a way to provide service,” said Rob Favini, head of library counseling and development for the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.
As of last spring, almost all of the libraries had reopened and recently most had returned at peak hours and many had resumed indoor programming, Favini said.
With Omicron’s rapid spread across the country, libraries in late December were closely monitoring developments to see how this might impact their services, according to Favini.
“We’re hearing a little bit of anxiety,” Favini said Dec. 20 of local library officials. “I don’t think at this point we’re going to end up with libraries closing their doors. We hear some people think they might have to cut back on their hours at some point. “
Library leaders are “frustrated,” he added. “Having come to this point, now here is Omicron. “
Several local library directors interviewed on December 20 said they did not anticipate any immediate service changes – or only limited changes – in the wake of Omicron.
“It’s a rapidly changing situation, but it’s different from a year ago because people are vaccinated,” Allen said. “Obviously we will follow the guidelines of our local health authorities and to date I haven’t heard from them about changes in our protocols here. … We’ll just be flexible, but my preference is definitely to stay open and provide services in the normal way.
Meanwhile, many of the improvised services that transported libraries during the first two years of the pandemic continue.
The Peabody Institute Library, for example, intends to pursue a contactless payment option that began last spring.
“It’s really cool,” said Cate Merlin, director of the Peabody Public Library, of the system, in which books that customers order online are placed on a shelf for them to pick up and download. pay themselves when they visit. “A lot of people appreciate the efficiency of it, and it’s also more private. “
Northborough also expects to keep a self-checkout option it started for customers who wanted to avoid face-to-face interactions. “It’s a change for the better,” said Bruneau, board member and past president of the New England Library Association.
Digital programming also promises to be a lasting innovation.
“I think libraries found an audience for this and were successful in doing it,” Favini said. “Many say they plan to keep this in the mix.”
By presenting events online, libraries were able to reach a wider audience, he said, noting that hundreds of people joined a virtual conversation at Shrewsbury Public Library held in January 2020 with Ibram Kendi, the bestselling author and founding director of the Boston University Center. for anti-racist research. “Usually on a good evening for an author’s conference at the library, you have 50 people. “
The Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy offered a full virtual programming schedule during the first year of the pandemic. Indoor programs returned this fall, but the library is continuing some virtual-only programs and plans to offer others in a hybrid form: in-person and virtual.
“We try to make our services and programs as accessible as possible, and that includes maintaining an online component,” Allen said. “One of the things we found out during COVID was that we had more participation in online programs – people who weren’t able to come in person before due to transportation or timing could participate online. . “
Going forward, Peabody intends to offer customers the ability to view many of its programs live online. For example, a literature conference last spring – the latest in a periodical series from Harvard professor Theo Theoharis – was held in person and on Zoom.
“We are providing access for people who cannot enter, are uncomfortable entering, do not want to drive after dark, or do not live in the area,” Merlin said.
Northborough does not plan to regularly offer future programs online as its clients have shown a preference for in-person events. But Bruneau anticipates that the library’s new online capabilities will come in handy.
“If we have to close the library or the weather is a bit bad – or if Omicron’s spread requires it – we can always go to a virtual option rather than canceling the program, ”she said.
Patrons of local libraries can also expect more opportunities to participate in outdoor programs, officials said.
Guests have responded enthusiastically to the outdoor programming at Quincy and “we will continue to do this when the weather permits,” Allen said. As with outdoor dining, people like to be outdoors and “some programs work particularly well outdoors – complicated programs like arts and crafts or science with lots of hands-on activities.”
Merlin said that when the Peabody Library featured programs in their backyard this year, “we learned how precious space this is. As a result, the library is seeking grants to convert the yard into a permanent “outdoor community learning area” with amenities such as a pergola, brick patio and community vegetable garden.
“It’s a pretty good space; now we want it to be a wonderful space, ”she said.
Another trend fueled by the pandemic – the increased emphasis many libraries place on electronic services – also appears to be lasting change.
E-book cases at Peabody “exploded” during the pandemic, and the library reallocated more of its budget to these resources, Merlin said. More recently, it bought 20 Chromebook laptops and added 10 portable Wi-Fi hotspots to its existing 20 to lend to customers.
“I think people are more comfortable doing things online,” Merlin said. “It’s not going to stop.”
Northborough in 2020 bought six portable wireless hotspots and, thanks to a grant, later added 10 more. “They’ve been very popular with more people working remotely,” said Bruneau, whose library is also acquiring 10 laptops for customers to borrow.
Before Omicron’s arrival, life in the library buildings had slowly returned to normal.
After annual visits to state libraries fell from an average of 36 million before the pandemic to around 5 million in the last fiscal year, Favini said visitor traffic was coming back, even though “we didn’t. we are not there yet “.
Foot traffic in Quincy’s main library has increased slightly since it reopened in July, but remains at about 40% of pre-pandemic levels, according to Allen. Bruneau said Northborough’s visitor numbers remained 15% to 20% below normal, and Merlin said Peabody’s remained down 25%.
Ellen Church, president of the Friends of the Northborough Library book auction, said in early December that the library was still relatively quiet, but as an active customer she was delighted to be back.
“During the pandemic, I borrowed books electronically and read more on my tablet, but I don’t like it – I’m pretty much done. 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 strengthened – the efforts of libraries in the digital age to redefine themselves as places of community gathering, some officials say.
“People spent so much of their time during the pandemic being isolated from others. I think there’s a really pent-up desire to be in a common space with other people, ”Allen said. “Libraries had started playing this role in communities very well and I think it will come back. “
As part of that effort, the Quincy Library recently resumed a program suspended during the pandemic. In its main building, it hosts periodic after-hours social events for adults 21 and over with a cash bar, free refreshments, and live music.
Allen said the library tentatively plans to hold the next of these social events in the spring, but could 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 hope some of the new residents will come.”
“Anything that people can do to come together and get this face-to-face interaction is so helpful and beneficial to the community,” Bruneau said. “I think this is an essential function of public libraries.
John Laidler can be reached at [email protected].