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‘Public service is what we do’: Baltimore County library leaders adjust as they welcome back in-person patrons

Baltimore County libraries opened for limited in-person browsing this week for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year ago.

The reopening plan features browsing and self-checkout of materials; limited computer use; information and account management requests; self-service printing, faxing and copying; library card registration and digital card conversions, at 30% capacity in most county libraries.

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“I’m very excited,” Baltimore County library director Sonia Alcántara-Antoine said. “Public service is what we do and interacting with our community is core to our service model.”

Alcántara-Antoine also noted the unprecedented pandemic and library leaders changing their mentality for the betterment of the community.

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“We had to change our mindset on what public service was but now what it had to be [because of] these new circumstances,” she said.

Discussions between library leaders led to innovative options for residents such as virtual programming, curbside pickup, digital downloads, and streaming services during the pandemic.

“We figured out how to do it,” she said. “We had to pivot and turn on a dime.”

Finding ways to stay connected to the community was also a major priority, said Towson library branch manager Tyler Wolfe.

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“Our doors were closed and we didn’t know how long [the pandemic] would go on,” he said.

Wolfe said one of their first conversations involved curbside pickup, which ended up being a huge success during the pandemic and will continue as the libraries continue to reopen.

“Throughout the pandemic we’ve had so many wonderful notes and emails from the community — saying being able to pick up books and CDs kept them sane,” he said with a laugh. “A lot of people were so happy to have access to those materials.”

The Catonsville branch and its residents were anxious with anticipation about the first week of reopening for in-person browsing, branch manager Sara Jane Brunson said.

“People are just so glad to be back,” Brunson said. “They haven’t been here in 14 months and a lot of the community members have grown up here, including new parents. This is their childhood branch and they want their children to have their experience.”

Catonsville librarian Corina Butler echoed similar sentiments.

“People love and appreciate the library way more than I could have ever imagined,” she said. “The library is a such a gem in every community and now we’re actually seeing and hearing each customer say this as they come in. It’s really refreshing to hear.”

Brunson also reflected on the volume of curbside orders during the pandemic which required delivery, checking items in, getting orders ready, taking calls, and getting orders out.

“This community loves their books. We’ve been extremely busy with curbside,” she said.

Communication among staff was also a challenge during the pandemic, Brunson said. In response to the issue, staff members kept in touch, using Zoom meetings and “book talks,” discussing what they were reading to help with team building.

“It was something normal to do because there were so many unknowns,” she said. “[Book talks] really helped in the earlier days.”

Seventeen county branches are now open for in-person browsing with new public browsing hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday and Saturday. The Reisterstown and Rosedale facilities have not reopened yet due to ongoing renovations there.

Alcántara-Antoine is optimistic about additional plans of reopening for county libraries and hopes to bring back more traditional services in the future.

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