Occasionally an uninformed voice is heard to express the opinion that libraries are antiquated–out of date–superfluous in the age of technology. How wrong that voice is, and never more in error than now. The COVID-19 crisis should have proved to all of us that libraries have never been better adapted to the needs of the community–and particularly so in Suffield, where the library serves as a community center. Despite strict regulations governing its use for the past year and despite operating on the proverbial shoestring, our own Kent Memorial Library has more than risen to the challenge, with creative projects and programs designed to reach as many of its clientele as possible, even during these hard times.
As empty and quiet as our library seems these days, there are many examples of how KLM has been bustling even during COVID-19 closures, proving once again that libraries are not just about books. As you enter the main floor of the building, you see an ongoing book sale sponsored by the Friends of the Library, a volunteer organization which raises money for an array of programming, with a book sale which is normally held along with Suffield on the Green and which had to be canceled this year. As long as the weather was decent, there was curbside pickup of books, CDs, DVDs, etc. Suffield resident Peter Das reports that the staff has accommodated his requests promptly and occasionally even ordered additional books that they think he might enjoy. “Life without an actual book in hand would be empty,” he says, and others echo that sentiment. Books, yes–in abundance–but our library provides many other services as well.
There has been an opportunity in recent weeks for patrons to visit the library in person by appointment, to do research or just to browse. The library’s social media presence has been increased and its outreach efforts expanded, with a keen awareness of the “digital divide” which has become so noticeable during the past year. A virtual programming strategy has enabled adult programs to continue through the pandemic, as well as on line clubs for teens, hosted by high school volunteers. Even gingerbread house traditions have continued in new ways. There are craft kits for children, with supplies and directions included–perfect for parents and caregivers who are faced with keeping youngsters productively busy each day. It is harder to provide home-bound deliveries now that volunteer efforts are restricted, but normally that is an important part of the library’s outreach functions. Another Suffield resident, Suzy Irwin, adds praise for programs such as the “concierge” service, in which staff members will select 5 books on any given topic for a reader to pick up. Suzy uses the library’s website for something called “Wowbrary,” a digital service which regularly sends a list of new books (including ebooks) to her email. She also spoke of a service to senior citizens who don’t have computers available; a flyer with library contact information is attached to each senior’s lunchbag for distribution from the Senior Center, so that everybody can stay informed about what is available to them at the library.
Thanks to KLM library director Garrett Pinder, the library has helped to spearhead, with others, the town’s Inclusivity Speaker Series. He regards this effort as an important part of his job. Staff members are available to help with research projects and with such practicalities as providing resources for people who want to apply for jobs online. They are happy to access what they can of interlibrary loan facilities. And in non-COVID-19 times there are movies and art exhibits and lectures to attend, as there will be again-soon, we hope!
On March 22, following guidelines issued by the governor, the library was able to partially reopen. Of course there will continue to be a need for the sanitizing of surfaces, for masks, for plexiglass protection at the main desk, for distancing-but the plan is to extend the library’s hours and to allow visitors without appointment, so long as the number of people inside the building remains small enough to be safe. The staff is looking forward to the change, but challenges remain. At the moment the number of employees has been reduced, from 16 to 10; Pinder hopes to increase that number in order to broaden services in the future. Everyone working at the library has been under pressure to take on extra tasks while retaining the usual services to the degree that is possible; that kind of effort requires enormous expenditures of energy. Nevertheless, all are intent on keeping the library as healthy and vibrant, though in different ways, as it was before the pandemic.
And looking ahead, what looms large on the horizon? Budgetary issues, of course, and staffing-always related in any organization; the town’s annual budget process is underway. And even though space is limited, creative re-arrangements have provided opportunities to make effective use of the newly renovated building. The good news is that the library enjoys superb energy and thoughtful leadership, not just from Garrett Pinder, but from his colleagues as well.
It is important that we not forget the enormous range of services our library provides. Books are important, truly vital, but they are by no means the only responsibility the library has to the community. In fact, the use and care and storage of the books you see on the shelves may demand less of the staff than the myriad of other endeavors in which they participate. Libraries are antiquated? out of date? superfluous? Not on your life! All of us need this library, even if we use a Kindle, subscribe to Amazon Prime, read the New York Times online, and listen regularly to podcasts. We all need to be a little more flexible in our thinking and a little more informed about what is really going on behind the scenes at the building occupying one corner of our major intersection; its central location is a symbol of its value to Suffield residents.