Functioning during the pandemic: Library makes accommodating changes

Newton Public Library collection development librarian Stefanie Knopp places some library books in a cart, which were to be picked up by the public. Wendy Nugent/HC Now

By Wendy Nugent, Harvey County Now

NEWTON—Newton Public Library is a place where people can walk into various adventures, places and even times throughout history through books.

Even with the pandemic roaring, library staff members are doing the best they can to get reading material and programs in front of the public.

“Throughout this pandemic, our goal has been to provide the broadest possible range of library services, while still holding the safety of our staff and the public as the absolute top priority,” said Sam Jack, public relations and special services supervisor at NPL. “Like many other businesses and organizations, early in the pandemic we had to close entirely. On March 24, we stopped circulating physical items and asked patrons to keep checked-out items at home until further notice.”

There are protocols they developed and now are following. Before they started book and DVD circulation again on May 18, the staff came up with procedures they still use. Those include staff wearing gloves and masks and placing returned items on large tables in the library’s large meeting room.

“At the end of each day, we cover the day’s returns with a plastic tarp,” Jack said. “The books and DVDs stay under the tarp in quarantine for at least 72 hours before they are checked in and returned to circulation.”

They put this quarantine system into place after finding out COVID-19 becomes less likely to spread and infect a person as time passes.

“We want all of our patrons to be able to borrow confidently,” Jack said.

Libraries throughout the globe use this quarantine system.

Jack said the system goes like clockwork now, but when they first reopened, they knew they had patrons with thousands of items they had been waiting around two months to return. To avoid the avalanche of returning items, staff worked out a plan with special return hours and procedures.

From May 18 through June 15, library patrons could ask for items and then pick them up, with no face-to-face contact, at the front door, as the interior of the library was closed to the public.

The library kicked in Phase 2 of its reopening plan on June 15. This meant resuming indoor access and services on the main level, and they have stayed in Phase 2 since then, except for a few days recently when they went back to front-door pickup.

“There was a concern about potential exposures among the staff, but fortunately, the Harvey County Health Department gave us the all clear,” Jack said. “Libraries all over the state have had to close temporarily due to COVID-19 cases and exposures, and we have been fortunate to avoid that.”

Now, with the public back in the library, staff has had to come up with plans to keep everyone safe. They’ve implemented mask wearing, physical distancing of at least six feet, hand sanitizing and surface cleaning.

The pandemic has affected much at the library, even circulation.

“Circulation is down compared to pre-pandemic,” Jack said. “As noted above, we were closed entirely for two months, and despite all the precautions we have implemented, many patrons are understandably concerned about visiting a public place.”

Jack said he has helped many patrons get started with e-book and e-audiobook borrowing, and they’ve worked hard to build awareness of those options.

“If you have a smartphone, tablet or Kindle and don’t have the Libby and Hoopla apps, you’re definitely missing out, and you should call the library, get yourself a library card and get started,” Jack said.

People who are concerned about entering the public building are welcome to call ahead, and staff will bag their wanted items and put them in the lobby for contact-free pickup.

Also affected at the library has been the ENLITE program, whereby people deliver books to places where residents have trouble getting out, like retirement communities.

“Before the pandemic, we would set up mobile browsing stations at the assisted living and healthcare communities we serve and invite residents to come browse and visit with a library staff member,” said Dan Eells, adult services supervisor.

During the pandemic, library staff now speak with ENLITE patrons by phone, gather the books they want and drop them off for facility staff members to hand out to the residents.

“Everyone misses that face-to-face connection, but I’m just glad that we have been able to resume delivering books,” Eells said. “This program is really a lifeline for homebound people and seniors, and we have heard from a lot of patrons and staff members that this service is very much appreciated and was very much missed before its return.”

The program serves about 260 ENLITE patrons in Newton and North Newton.

“We miss being able to have in-person meetings and programs, but we’ve been gratified that people have really embraced online programs, mostly held via Zoom,” Jack said. “Since this all started, we have held Summer Library Program, monthly local history and photography programs, author talks and other special events, and adult attendance has been comparable to—sometimes even quite a bit more than—pre-pandemic.”

He said more than 100 patrons attended live online programs about a variety of topics, from NASA’s Artemis program to Kansas folktales.

“People have become more and more comfortable with meeting online, and our staff is always happy to help people overcome technical barriers,” Jack said.

Jack doesn’t expect things to return to normal until after the pandemic ceases.

“Despite all our efforts to make people comfortable and give people options, I don’t think we expect circulation to fully return to normal until COVID-19 recedes in our community and we are able to drop some of the restrictions we have in place,” he said. “That’s why it has been great to see all the recent videos and posts about the first health care workers being vaccinated. There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”