When public libraries closed statewide in mid-March, patrons were barred from browsing shelves, using computers and nodding off in the quiet community spaces avid readers and researchers love.
Now six months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, public libraries — like commerce, the 2020-21 school year and the nation’s collective social awareness — are undeniably different.
The 65 branches of the North Country Library System, peppered across municipalities in Jefferson, St. Lawrence, Lewis and Oswego counties, have each undergone periodic renovations, experienced staffing changes, engaged in library district debates and leveled with budget concerns for decades.
“But nothing like this,” Kathy Paige, Hepburn Library staffer, said.
During the state’s spring pause, in-person operations were shut down and library services largely halted. But virtual story hours, online research assistance and weekly digital programming quickly became standard procedure for the dozens of branches tasked with fostering community literacy.
When the north country was approved May 15 to enter Phase 1 of the state’s initial four-phase reopening plan, libraries were permitted to offer no-contact curbside service for picking up and dropping off materials. Phase 2 allowed limited in-person curbside service, and now both public and association libraries can open, though restrictions are still in place.
NCLS has recommended the reopening of its branches in six stages, called service levels, which range from Service Level 1, Complete Building Closure, to Service Level 6, Full Service Restored.
Reopening plans and stages vary by location, but most north country branches are now offering curbside service with modified hours, and several have begun to offer appointments for browsing and computer use. Designated areas on the main floor of Watertown’s Flower Memorial Library, for instance, are open to a maximum of 20 visitors at a time. Other branches remain closed to any in-person services.
Once checked-in, library materials are typically being quarantined for four days, the NCLS reports, a time period based on the most recent public health recommendations for items like books and CDs.
Hepburn Library, serving some 1,500 people in the town of Madrid, has seen half a dozen people a week making appointments to browse or use computers, Mrs. Paige said.
About 15 a week continue to utilize curbside service. But limited contact, a shift contrary to the very existence of community libraries, she said, has been a trying transition.
“We miss our patrons,” she said. “We miss our community members we’re used to seeing and helping.”
Open 24/7, the virtual branch of NCLS hosts digital programming and offers e-books and self-guided classes. The virtual system is accessible at ncls.libguides.com/virtualbranch. Branch-specific information is available online or can be requested by phone.