In many communities, libraries offer more than just books. In rural towns, they may be the only community center, and in cities they serve as WiFi hotspots and shelter from cold or hot weather for homeless individuals.
Library directors say the COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized the importance of libraries’ role in communities. As their phased reopenings begin across the state, libraries are playing it by day when it comes to offering services beyond curbside pickup of books and other materials.
“We are a community center, and I think libraries should be a community center. And it’s literally heartbreaking that we have to be so restricted,” said Jennifer McCormack, director of the Nashua Public Library. “There are people who need us for a plethora of services besides just borrowing materials.”
Before the health crisis, Nashua’s homeless often stayed at the library from open to close in order to access computers, WiFi, or just shelter. While WiFi and some charging stations are accessible outside of the building, McCormack says the library has been the only service in the city that has remained completely closed to populations they are usually able to serve.
“Of those other social services that have kind of been directing folks to help, we have kind of been this blank slate,” she said. “Currently the only contact we have with people who used to be in here all day, every day is we might see them outside on the grounds and chat and say ‘hi,’ and make sure they have what they need.”
Nashua’s library also partners with End 68 Hours of Hunger and Southern New Hampshire Services to provide bag lunches and non-perishable foods to children under the age of 18 during the summer. The library has been giving out 10-12 meals per day via curbside pickup this year, McCormack said, down from an average of 20 per day last year. She says it’s probably because many don’t realize the library is open, but that word of mouth will help bring in more kids in need, especially when the library reopens July 6.
Upon reopening, patrons will be able to come in and browse new materials, but most stacks as well as the children and teen rooms will be off limits. There will also be no customer seating. Six computers will be available for 90-minute use by appointment, and each computer station will be cleaned between each use. Computer mice and keyboards will go into quarantine for 72 hours and be replaced with a clean set in the meantime.
Dover was one of the first libraries in the state to allow patrons inside the building to use computers — either by appointment or walk-in — starting mid-May.
“There were a lot of people where we are their only source of getting online and being able to do some paperwork that they might have to do, so we really wanted to be a resource to those people,” said Library Director Denise LaFrance. “So we created a plan which we felt would keep both us and the public safe during that time.”
Though Dover also has its own significant homeless population, LaFrance says employees haven’t asked people to leave, even if they have overstayed the suggested one-hour time limit, because the library has yet to reach capacity.
“We’ve been a little lax. There is somebody currently that’s been here all morning. So that’s okay, because we’re not near our numbers. We haven’t been asking anybody to leave. We’d rather not,” she said.
While Gov. Chris Sununu’s Safer-at-Home guidance for libraries does not explicitly recommend time limits or appointments for library entry, many libraries like Nashua are doing so due to high demand for those services as well as safety for patrons and workers.
“All of our libraries are working closely with the health professionals in their community to determine the safety of opening up,” said Michael York, New Hampshire’s state librarian in Concord. “What has been a major challenge is that most of our libraries provide programming as well, and obviously with the need to social distance, those programs don’t become viable.”
Many, like the Plaistow Public Library, have provided a wide range of programs and events online. In addition to digital storytimes and presentations, the library has made take-home craft kits and even sewing machines available. The group Plaistow & Friends Making Masks 4 Heroes use the library as a hub for mask-making supplies as well as completed masks for the community.
Plaistow’s library also hosted a drive-in movie in its parking lot for the first time this week, but is continuing its virtual event model for the foreseeable future.
“I think the biggest thing we’ve learned is just how much we’ve missed serving and working with the community,” said Cab Vinton, director of the Plaistow Public Library. “We have patrons telling us all the time telling us how big a part of their lives coming to the library was.”
Some other services like passport applications have been put on hold since passports are processed by the state department, which has temporarily suspended processing.
“We have folks who are upset with us because we’re not doing it, but it’s because we’re not allowed to. At this point, they have a huge backlog,” Vinton said.
Tax assistance that began in Dover just before the library closed has been booked with appointments through July.
Moving forward, library directors say they are working closely with local health professionals before making further determinations on what can be made available. In Nashua, McCormack says outdoor seating may be a possibility so patrons can have a place to read and use WiFi, but she does not want to encourage people to congregate.
“It’s such hard work just to re-establish the basic services. We’re really just keeping an eye on every change that happens ... so we can anticipate and be ready for every new thing that we can offer,” she said.