People & Places

How libraries across Vermont are continuing to serve people despite a pandemic

Librarians in front of Bixby Library
Staff at the Bixby Memorial Free Library in Vergennes have worked to maintain services during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Sawyer Loftus/VTDigger

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Vermont’s public libraries have figured out how to serve their communities despite mandatory closings and limitations. 

Initially, like every institution in Vermont, libraries across the state shut down in early March to help combat Covid-19. 

But in mid-April, libraries found ways to reach people — through curbside services and expanded digital resources. In the months since, the individuality of each of Vermont’s libraries has shone through. 

But it’s not like it used to be. If a library is even open for in-person services, patrons generally can wander only in limited areas, and the library staff often works behind a wall of protective material. Reading groups, youth clubs, musical performances are not happening in person.

Because each of Vermont’s nearly 200 libraries has its own personality, state officials never envisioned a unified response to Covid-19.

State guidance and regulations have encouraged each library to make their own choices, said State Librarian Jason Broughton. 

“They vary in a whole host of ways; they all are also their own independent branch; they have a board that allows oversight and perspective, and directors of different calibers run the libraries,” Broughton said. “So within that, and given Vermont’s history, each town, you know is so different, each community is so different, the local library reflects that intent.” 

It seems that no two libraries have the same reopening plan. 

VTDigger spoke with five different libraries to get a sense of how libraries around the state are adapting to Vermont’s new normal.

The ‘patchwork’

Of all the organizations reopening in Vermont, libraries and their close relatives, museums, have some of the greatest flexibility, said Broughton, the state librarian.

“There’s a whole myriad of different items that impact the decision,” he said, including the library employees and the people they will serve. “Who is coming to the library more? How do you want to navigate that to make those resources available?”

Currently, libraries, galleries, museums, theaters and other indoor arts, culture and entertainment organizations have been given the following guidance from the state:

  • These establishments could restart in-person operations June 1 if they followed the health and safety requirements in the Phased Restart Work Safe Guidance.
  • They may allow 50 percent of fire occupancy or 1 person per 100 square feet, with a maximum of 75 people indoors and 150 people outdoors.
  • Cashless/touchless transactions are strongly preferred.
  • Curbside pickup is still the preferred method of operation, and libraries should take steps to stage or stagger in-person visitors.
  • High-touch “entertainment features,” like arcades, should remain closed. But play structures can be open with proper signage and available hand sanitizer.
  • Libraries and other arts and culture organizations can offer summer camps if they follow state guidelines relating to camps.
Jason Broughton, state librarian. Named April 2, 2019 by Gov. Phil Scott.
Jason Broughton is Vermont’s state librarian. Courtesy photo

When the pandemic struck, libraries were initially lumped into the “retail” sector by the state. But quickly, Broughton said, the conversation shifted; libraries were grouped with museums. That gave them greater flexibility to navigate services.

The state “began to realize like, ‘Oh, we should have you back in the cultural institutions’ because that’s what libraries are; they are a kind of informational cultural touchstone,” Broughton said. “If you had to group it, museums would be akin to libraries. We’re pretty much kin; we’re family, museums and libraries; we just provide our information differently.”

On top of state guidelines, the Department of Libraries offered library-specific research about best practices in light of Covid-19, including quarantining returned items for 72 hours, he said.

Montpelier’s Kellogg-Hubbard Library

“We’re not just circulating books,” said Carolynn Brennan, director of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier. Photo by Sawyer Loftus/VTDigger

Fundamentally, the conversations are all the same: Library directors, staff and trustees discuss what services need to be offered and how that can happen safely. 

The nitty-gritty plan differs at each library, said Carolynn Brennan, director of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier. 

“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach,” Brennan said. “Across Vermont, libraries are staffed differently, they’re funded differently, their buildings look drastically different, and are used in different ways depending on community needs. So we’re taking these broader guidelines and broader sets of rules and then looking at our own community and staff and having conversations to figure out, well, what do we need to do here.” 

The Kellogg-Hubbard Library is based in Montpelier, but also serves the nearby communities of Calais, Berlin, East Montpelier, Middlesex and Worcester. 

The physical library space in Montpelier is important to the community, and Brennan and her staff wanted to find a way to make it available. 

“Although our primary function is absolutely still circulating print library materials and then circulating digital library materials, we’re not just circulating books,” she said. “So before the pandemic, we were the place in Montpelier where you could go in and use the public bathroom, access the public computer, get on the internet, and check your email. And we were a significant after-school space for kids. We needed to do more than just curbside services.” 

The Kellogg-Hubbard is currently offering: 

  • In-person service six days a week. 
  • Browse and borrow books from the “New” shelves. 
  • Buy books from the book sale. 
  • Use a public computer for 30 minutes. 
  • Print or scan documents. 
  • Ask a librarian a reference question. 
  • Request items for curbside pickup tomorrow. 
  • Read a newspaper or borrow it to read outdoors. 
  • Use the public bathroom. 

However, there are some limitations, Brennan said, including requesting and instantly getting library materials, accessing the nonfiction room and other floors of the library, and remaining in the building for more than 30 minutes. 

The Kellogg-Hubbard has also set up curbside tables in the other communities it serves to make it easier to have access to books and other library resources.

Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library

The Fletcher Free Library in Burlington stood empty on Wednesday, March 20, when all city buildings were closed to the public during the onset of the coronavirus outbreak. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Similar to the Kellogg-Hubbard, the Fletcher Free Library serves a nuanced and modern role in the Burlington community. It’s still operating largely through curbside services.

As the library began to reopen, it focused on getting books out the door, said Library Director Mary Danko, but then quickly had to shift gears to fill other service gaps.  

One gap was access to the internet and access to public computers, Danko said, “so our next step was to open up, so people could come inside and pick up their holds, ask our librarians questions, and make appointments to use the computer center,” all while keeping the staff and patrons safe. 

“Every time we open up a little, we’re not quite sure exactly what the response will be. I like to say we’re ‘prototyping,’ then we’re watching what the user experiences, and then we’re adapting.” 

Current service offerings at the library include: 

  • Open seven days a week.
  • Inside pickup of materials. 
  • Outside pickup of materials. 
  • “Open Air Hours” where children’s librarians sit outside and are available for kids to interact with. 
  • The computer center is open by appointment only 

Danko said her priority has been to restore as many services as possible, as the library is an anchor in the Burlington community. 

“When we can put a book into their hands or a DVD into their hands or you know, get them back onto the public computer so they can catch up on their emails, it just feels so good,” Danko said. “You just realize how important our services are.”

Hinesburg’s Carpenter-Carse Library

From behind a curtain of clear acrylic plastic, Carpenter-Carse Library Director Beth Royer joked that each time she steps behind the circulation desk, it feels like she’s underwater.

To complete the joke, the library staff has added orange construction-paper fish and bubbles around the front of the protective sheet that stands between the librarians and library patrons in this new era marked by the constant need for personal protective equipment.

Royer said that, from the start of the pandemic, she knew libraries were going to play an important role.

“I just felt like, as a reader myself, being stuck at home without fresh reading material would frustrate me,” Royer said of the initial library shutdowns in early March.

Since then, Royer and her staff have worked to increase their digital services, including adding access to new things like HOOPLA! which features ebooks, audiobooks, and movies.

Currently, the Carpenter-Carse is open by appointment only and operates a robust curbside pickup program to ensure staff and patron safety, Royer said.

“We’ve made it so that you can come in and browse. It’s just slightly inconvenient because it’s like calling the dentist office or something,” Royer said. “I’ve said it’s more like a boutique library experience now, because you have our attention, because there are not enough people in here at one time for us to not be paying attention to what you’re doing.”

Royer also worked to adapt to the times.

“I put a laptop outside under a covered porch because I know there are some folks who come here to use the internet,” she said. “And so one patron and I became pals during the time that we were closed because he would be here to use the internet.”

For the foreseeable future, the library offers:

  • Curbside pickup of materials.
  • Open by appointment.
  • Retain a laptop outside for patrons to access the internet.
  • An ever-growing amount of digital services.

Royer said she wishes she could do more, but everyone’s safety is the top priority.

“The thing that’s a bummer to me, on the whole, is like public programming, we can move programming to the internet, but I feel like a lot of people are at their capacity for wanting to spend time on the internet,” Royer said. “The good thing is [Covid-19] did motivate me to finally get our act together in terms of adding another service that now lets people access ebooks and audiobooks and movies from home.”

Moretown Memorial Library

The Moretown library’s sole employee, Cory Stephenson, has taken advantage of a new space for the library, one that allows social distancing so that patrons can come as they please. 

The library is now in the 1835 town hall, a single-level square building with a steeple that stretches to the sky. It’s largely unused except for Town Meeting Day. The move has allowed Stephenson to spread out her library’s collections. 

Early into Gov. Phil Scott’s stay-at-home order, the Moretown Memorial Library was able to offer curbside services for folks. But “it was just sort of unclear where libraries fit into the scheme of things in terms of, you know, what we were considered in the state’s eyes,” she said. “It was a little tricky in the beginning but then as soon as the plan as of June 1 came out … the state really did step up and sort of provide that support. … We got sneeze guards from them and hand sanitizer, and also the Youth Services team put together a whole online interactive Summer Reading Challenge.”

Since Stephenson is the only employee, the library is generally available only when she is, which is now Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. 

Currently, Moretown Memorial offers: 

  • In-person browsing of books. 
  • Curbside services. 
  • Access to public Wi-Fi and a public computer. 

Looking ahead to the upcoming school year, Stephenson said she is working with the local school district to figure out how the library can offer its resources safely.

“I think libraries have evolved as community centers and hubs of a community,” she said. “It’s been interesting and challenging to figure out how to be that resource that is a community center without actually being a physical place for people to get together and gather and share ideas.”

Vergennes’ Bixby Memorial Free Library

The Bixby’s new library director started work in the middle of the pandemic. 

Catharine Findiesen Hays was interviewed online and hired without any town officials setting actual eyes on her. She’s been working with the interim director, Maddy Willwerth, to offer curbside services, as the library has remained closed. 

“Within just a couple of weeks, we were able to, you know, get services up and going as soon as we could get a couple of staff members back into the building,” Hays said. “So we’ve been saying we’re open. It’s just the building is closed.” 

Hays said she and her staff also worked to connect with specific residents they knew needed particular services, and to boost communication with the rest of the community. 

Currently, the Bixby is offering: 

  • Curbside pickup of materials including laptops. 
  • An increased digital section. 
  • Children’s activity packages. 
  • Outdoor movie screenings. 

Staff turnover has made it difficult to plan when the building will be allowed to be open, Hays said, but overall working through a pandemic has made the job as meaningful as it can get. 

“To have the kind of position that library directors, and not just the director but all of the staff, to be able to serve the community in ways and understand the needs of the community, and be able to be a resource, and essential and providing escapism — that has been incredibly meaningful,” she said. 

Because each library’s situation is different, Vermonters should check their libraries’ website, or call them to see what services are available as guidance is rapidly changing.

Sawyer Loftus

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