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Q&A: Executive director of Carroll County Public Library on limited reopening, operating during a pandemic

For Andrea Berstler, operating a library during a pandemic has proven to a unique and a once in a lifetime experience. Nothing in her 22-year career in libraries could have prepared her for the challenge she and her staff faced in the past year as the executive director of Carroll County Public Library

But as people across the country were forced to go home and online, Berstler found a new surge in interest in the library’s collection and online programming. In fact, Berstler says Carroll County’s library branches actually gained users during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 2,000 new cards being created from people who took advantage of the contactless borrowing service for the library’s tens of thousands of books, movies, and music.

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With Carroll County libraries opening on Monday in a limited capacity, the Times caught up with Bestler to learn about what services will be available and what to expect from the libraries in the coming year.

Andrea Berstler, executive director of Carroll County Public Libraries
Andrea Berstler, executive director of Carroll County Public Libraries

Q: Will the libraries be open as of Monday?

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A: Monday we will be opening for for what can best be called limited service. We will have some limited hours and will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and then Saturdays it’ll still be 10 to 3.

Before COVID, the libraries were open six days a week and we were open from 9 a.m. till 8:45 p.m. It’s definitely a reduction of hours and then we will have limited capacity in the buildings. So we’ll be doing like counting heads and that sort of thing just to make sure that the buildings aren’t too crowded. We’ve got the computers inside spaced out so that there is proper social distancing between them and limited number of seats for the same reason. And, of course, masks are required and there will be wipes for people to use and that sort of thing. The nice part of this is that the collection will be available for browsing so people can come in and use the library and a little more traditional fashion than just being able to borrow online materials.

We reopened last September and then we closed the buildings again in December in response to the spike that came right around the Thanksgiving holiday and we’re now being able to reopen them again as the numbers have dropped and are back into into the zone where will we feel like it’s safe for both our staff and our customers again to to open the buildings and have that face to face interaction. We’re actually very excited.

Q: What services you will be offering with a limited opening?

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A: We’ll have the computers available, which is a really big thing because there are some individuals in our community who don’t have access to computers or the Internet. So, of course, there’s wi-fi inside and outside the building. But now the computers will be available, copier, faxes, printers, those sorts of things. And and then they’ll have access to to talk to the staff. We’re still going to do all of our programing online for now. We don’t feel like we’re quite ready for in-person programs and we’re still using a lot of our programing space to store materials, while we quarantine and then also to store some of this additional furniture that we’ve had to we’ve had to remove from the floor. But it’s a step in the right direction. And and we’re really pleased to be able to open the buildings once again and make the spaces available to the residents of Carroll County.

Q: The Exploration Commons is scheduled to open soon, can you tell us more about that and what services we can expect?

A: It’s scheduled to be open to the public mid-June, it’s still under construction and once the construction phase is done, then we have a couple of weeks to outfit the space, get the equipment moved in, get the staff settled in, you know, make sure everything is right before we open. But we’re looking at a mid-June opening at this point.

We’re hoping that by then we can open more hours. And we’re looking at probably a different kind of schedule because this is a different kind of library building. There won’t be a collection of books, that sort of thing. This is a very hands-on experimental, library experience. So it may have a different set of hours than the rest of the library’s locations, but we’re we’re still working that out where we’re trying to get it open as many hours as we possibly can and still be safe for the staff and the community. But when it opens it will be open for the public to come in and use the space.

Q: How does the Exploration Commons differ from the other libraries? And how does the services of this library differ from others?

A: The six branches we currently have now are what might be considered more of a traditional library service. We have books and materials, magazines and movies. People come in and borrow those items and take them home. They come in for programs, story times and how-to-classes and cultural and history types of of programs. They come in and use the computers. They come in and get their passports and get things notarized and all of that sort of thing.

Exploration Commons is going to be built very much on programs and experiences — a lot of hands-on learning. We have a commercial teaching kitchen that will be there. We will be doing both workforce development training as well as events and classes on how to do lots of things related to food, food science, some basic food prep and then we have the makerspace, which will be outfitted with some of the latest technology that people can you can come in and learn to use for themselves. ... There’s a classroom, two small conference rooms, and then one 150-seat public meeting room and we’ll be using those for some of our programs while we’re still under COVID restrictions, so we can spread out a little bit. And the staff that’s there will be experts in these various fields. And so they’ll be able to walk people through step by step on how to do them. We’ve got staff that are food scientists and nutritionists and technology specialists and that sort of thing. So it’s it is a different kind of library experience, but one that we believe is is part of the future of libraries for communities where that people can come in and do those those hands-on pieces.

Many people have heard of the Carnegie libraries. Carnegie’s vision for libraries was a lot like this. He not only put in spaces for collections, he put in spaces for swimming pools and community centers and everything else. And they were all in the library because he believes the libraries were the heart of the community. It’s it’s that same theory we’re just utilizing in a little different way.

Carroll County Public Library executive director Andrea Berstler speaks during a rededication ceremony introducing the Exploration Commons at the Westminster branch Friday, Sept. 18, 2020.
Carroll County Public Library executive director Andrea Berstler speaks during a rededication ceremony introducing the Exploration Commons at the Westminster branch Friday, Sept. 18, 2020. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Q. When do you expect that libraries will be back up and running like a full service?

A: I wish I had a crystal ball for that one. We’re hoping that if the trend continues with the numbers decreasing, that we’ll be able to expand hours maybe over the summer and get back to something that resembles a little more of the pre-COVID library sometime this fall. We’re watching the numbers, we’re in contact with some of our education peers — the community college, the public schools and universities and other libraries across the state. And we communicate with them weekly to try and make sure that we’re we’re all seeing the same thing and we’re all moving in the same direction. And so far, I think it’s working pretty well, so we’re hopeful, fingers crossed, that by the time we get to the fall, things look a little more what we might consider normal, both in services and hours and even maybe programs.

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Q. What has it been like operating the library during a pandemic?

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A: Well, it’s not something that that when you when you go to library science school that they prepare you for, there’s no course on this one. It’s been a challenge, but there’s also been a lot of opportunities that have opened up because of this. What we have discovered is that people first of all, people really do love their library. We’ve got all kinds of communications from people telling us how much they miss the libraries being open and how much they’ve enjoyed the fact that we’ve been able to do online programs and and just appreciate all of the work that the staff has put into keeping the library as accessible as we possibly could. During all of this, our buildings were closed, but we never really were.

We picked up within a couple of days after we closed last March and started getting things online, making the online collection more robust, figuring out how to offer online programs. Our outreach department connected with their daycares and the senior centers. And we we tried to figure out how could we deliver materials there so people could at least have something to read. And our staff was extremely innovative, very creative in coming up with solutions to problems none of us ever faced before.

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