When disaster strikes, local communities can usually count on their local libraries as a source of refuge, entertainment and education. But with a pandemic, where social distancing and limited human contact is heavily advised, going to a library and checking out a physical book can seem daunting.
With the library still closed in Scarsdale for a $21.8 million renovation and expansion, the temporary library loft on Heathcote Road is reopening with book drop-offs and contactless pickups to help reinvigorate community engagement and start refilling bare shelves. The new facility is on track to open to the public in November.
Before the library loft closed on March 13 due to the pandemic, residents raided the library to check out last minute reading materials for a potentially long stay-at-home order. Three months later, the library devised protocol to bring those materials back into the library space, while also expanding access to virtual materials.
“It’s a new process,” said Library Director Beth Bermel. “We’ve never done this before.”
With some 3,000 to 4,000 items currently checked out of the library, Bermel said the library halted fines and extended due dates. Residents with checked out materials are now able to drop off books in bins outside the library loft on business days between 9 a.m. and noon. Items are then quarantined for 72 hours before being put back on the shelves.
“Safety first is our big thing. Safety for my staff [and] safety for patrons,” said Bermel. “Staff will start coming back in small shifts to check some [items] in. Other staff is still continuing to provide stuff from home; digital programming and purchasing.”
Because the temporary library loft space on Heathcote Road was small to begin with, in-person programming was limited at the location and the library offered a reduced schedule of programs. Digital programming has seen a huge surge in users thoughout the pandemic, from STEM classes, American Sign Language classes, yoga and technology time, to one-on-one talks with librarians and virtual book talks.
“We’re going to continue the digital programming that we’re doing, [maybe] for a very long time,” said Bermel.
In March, the library stopped buying print materials and instead invested in e-books and audio books, which also saw a surge in demand during the pandemic. Compared to last year, audiobook and e-book checkouts more than doubled. Overdrive, a service which helps connect libraries and residents with online content materials, has seen checkout for e-books and audiobooks increase at an exponential rate. In January and February, the library chalked up 2,700 to 2,800 e-book and audiobook checkouts through Overdrive. There were 3,500 checkouts in March and 4,800 in April.
For patrons longing to get their hands on print materials though, the library began offering contactless curbside pickup June 15. After making an appointment with a librarian, patrons place holds on items through the Westchester Library System’s online catalog. After scheduling a pickup time, patrons drive to the library loft and retrieve the materials in a labeled bag under a white tent.
“The librarians are reachable even though they’re not always physically in the building,” said Margot Milberg, who was named library board president in May. “So if somebody needs a book recommendation they can reach out to the librarians for suggestions about what they might want to read and that’s another way that they could … figure out what type of books they want to take out.”
In January, the Scarsdale Public Library and Friends of the Scarsdale Library released a 2020-22 strategic plan which outlined a framework for the library going forward, as well as a set of goals after reopening the library building in November. The plan took nine months to produce and was guided by information obtained from a survey, multiple roundtable discussions and a number of confidential interviews.
Although the pandemic has put a strain on many municipal plans, Milberg said she doesn’t believe the strategic plan will be affected.
“The strategic plan was a very broad plan and gave us some goals to work on, and one of them was programming,” she said. “If we can’t do big group in-person programming, like we’ve traditionally done, then maybe [we do] things that are web based.”
Milberg also said the library plan focused on meeting the business needs of the community and would be a resource for those working at home who needed to copy, fax or scan documents in the new library’s planned business center, if the pandemic were to extend into November.
“As more people may be working from home and they need resources, it’s going to be there for them,” she said.
Although still five months away, Bermel said she has formed a plan in her mind as to how the library will reopen if COVID-19 is still a threat to the community in the fall. But at this point, she isn’t trying to get ahead of herself — rather, she’s focusing on the loft and what a reopening celebration would look like.
“When we designed this building we did not have COVID in mind,” said Bermel. “The good news is that we have a lot of space.”
Despite a few delays due to COVID-19, the library’s construction is still set to be completed and open in November. Construction crews at the site have been following distancing and mask regulations, according to Milberg, and besides a few material shortages, construction has been progressing well.
According to Bermel, the library renovation’s architect is considering best practices for social distancing in the new space and will be figuring out protocols over the summer, well before the library’s planned opening in November.
“We miss everybody and … we are eager to get back to normal,” said Bermel. “We’re trying to … provide the services we can as safely as possible for everybody.”