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Quarantined books and sidewalk service: Baltimore-area public libraries adapt to pandemic

Mary Doyle, a circulation assistant at the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, looks for books for a library patron in the library's hold room. Library materials are held there until a patron can pick them up curbside. June 23, 2020
Mary Doyle, a circulation assistant at the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, looks for books for a library patron in the library's hold room. Library materials are held there until a patron can pick them up curbside. June 23, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The Cockeysville library in Baltimore County was empty of patrons, but its staffers were busy as ever.

Wearing a mask and gloves, a circulation assistant transferred newly returned novels from a metal cart to a table for a 72-hour quarantine. Librarians had 56 phone messages to return. Employees packed books into plastic tote bags to be placed on tables outside for people to take them home.

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“We’re getting a lot done, with very few people,” said branch manager Darcy Cahill, explaining that only about 15 people can work in the building each day to protect employee safety during the coronavirus pandemic.

Around the Baltimore region, book drops have opened after months of closure and many branches recently started pick-up service. Now libraries are re-imagining their place in a pandemic world, even if they can’t function like the traditional gathering spots they were before.

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Roger Coleman returns items in the 24 hour book drop at the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, which is now open for curbside pickup. Library materials are quarantined for 72 hours after being returned. June 23, 2020
Roger Coleman returns items in the 24 hour book drop at the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, which is now open for curbside pickup. Library materials are quarantined for 72 hours after being returned. June 23, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“What we really excel at is bringing people together,” said Heidi Daniel, president and CEO of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library, which is offering a “Books by Mail” program to city residents, in addition to sidewalk service. “That’s the opposite of what we needed to be doing, especially in the early days of the pandemic.”

The Anne Arundel County Public Library is set to open its doors July 6 for limited service. It previously planned to open mid-June, but initially could not get enough personal protective equipment for staff, officials said. Patrons will have to wear masks and will find many things different, from fewer seats to closed meeting rooms.

Other library systems around Baltimore haven’t yet announced dates for letting patrons back inside, but emphasize that they never stopped providing service.

“Even though libraries temporarily closed their physical buildings, they’ve always been open,” said Paul Negron, a spokesman for the Urban Libraries Council, a Washington-based membership organization of leading library systems.

With schools closed and people stuck at home, libraries have expanded virtual programming with online author appearances, writing groups and book discussions.

“We are really working hard to make sure that there is something for everyone, even during the pandemic,” said Ny’ilah Whitaker, a Pratt librarian who works with teens.

Working from home has been an adjustment for librarians, “but I believe this is building a new skill set,” said Whitaker, who is hosting an online yoga summer camp for teens and a virtual book group.

She’s also been featured on the library’s Facebook page in videos demonstrating relaxing breathing techniques.

Rizwana Malik, a circulation assistant at the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, works in the library's quarantine room, where library materials are stored for 72 hours before being released for circulation. The library is now open for curbside pickup. June 23, 2020
Rizwana Malik, a circulation assistant at the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, works in the library's quarantine room, where library materials are stored for 72 hours before being released for circulation. The library is now open for curbside pickup. June 23, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“A lot of kids are dealing with anxiety, and they’re not sure how to express it,” Whitaker said.

Interest in digital materials and online resources has surged during the pandemic, accelerating a shift that was already in motion.

Between mid-March and the end of May, people downloaded 387,879 digital items from Baltimore County libraries — a 52% increase from the same period the year before. Views of the library system’s YouTube channel increased 45% .

The Howard County Library System shifted resources to beef up its e-collection after seeing longer wait lists for digital items when the pandemic hit, said Tonya Aikens, its president and CEO.

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“Some people will want to continue reading in that format,” she said.

Libraries responded to the digital divide, too. In Baltimore, where more than 40% of residents lack broadband Internet access at home, the Pratt is offering free Wi-Fi service that people can use outside of eight branches. It plans to lend out wireless hotspots this summer, and will deploy its Bookmobile, Mobile Job Center and Book Buggy to provide Wi-Fi service in city neighborhoods.

And across Baltimore County, the library system boosted its wireless signals so people could get online in library parking lots.

Library directors are now planning for safety protocols similar to those now common in other public spaces like grocery stores. There will be plexiglass partitions at service desks and hand sanitizer stations around the buildings. There could be limits on capacity or appointments required to use services.

The Harford County Public Library has ordered anti-microbrial film that will cover “high-touch areas” such as door handles, elevator buttons and credit card machines, CEO Mary Hastler said.

Furniture will be spaced out to allow for social distancing — no more sitting elbow-to-elbow at computer stations, the Pratt’s Daniel said.

“I think,” she said, “the changes will be things that people will be used to.”

Self-service checkout likely will become even more common, said Paula Miller, director of the Baltimore County Public Library.

And libraries are making all these changes despite also feeling the economic impact of the pandemic as local governments experience significant revenue declines. Howard County library employees each have five furlough days this summer to save money. The Pratt plans cuts that include $250,000 from its book and material budget and $232,000 from positions not being filled.

Darcy Cahill, manager of the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, closes a car door after bringing a library patron's books to her car for curbside pickup. June 23, 2020
Darcy Cahill, manager of the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Public Library, closes a car door after bringing a library patron's books to her car for curbside pickup. June 23, 2020 (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

For now, many patrons are eager to once again feed their book habits. The Baltimore County library system reported that people picked up more than 11,200 items in the first two days of curbside service in June.

At the Cockesyville branch, Elizabeth Hoppe stood outside on a hot morning to try the new service. She had 75 books to return — and 64 to pick up for her family, including “Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew” mysteries, mythology books and graphic novels.

“We read a lot,” said Hoppe, who has two children in elementary school. “Especially when you’re home and you want them to do something educational and not on a screen, I would say, ‘Go read a book.' But we ran out. So I’m very excited.”

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