Ellen Bradley, library director for Turner Public Library, shows off the Quarantine Table, where returned books sit untouched for three days before they are reshelved and available for borrowing. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

As Maine’s retail businesses, restaurants and tourist attractions slowly reopen after being closed for a couple of months, many of Maine’s libraries are following suit, instituting new rules to keep staff and patrons safe as they open their doors to the public.

On May 18, the Maine Library Commission, which serves as the governing body for the Maine State Library, voted to approve a checklist of guidelines that libraries should follow and meet before opening to the public.

Two days later, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development included libraries in its list of public and community buildings that could reopen starting June 1.

Janet McKenney, director of library development at the Maine State Library, said that in order to make a checklist of guidelines that would benefit Maine’s libraries, they “observed what businesses were doing across the country for general guidance” and created a checklist with “library-specific guidelines.”

Since June 1, McKenney said that many of Maine’s rural libraries that serve less populous towns have elected to reopen with certain restrictions in place to keep staff and customers safe, while other cities — such as Lewiston and Auburn — have remained closed and serve customers using curbside or lobby pickup.

“It all depends on where (the library) is located, the age of the staff and what types of preexisting conditions that the staff has,” McKenney explained. “Some libraries have limited staff who are older in age compared to the city libraries. All of that plays a part in figuring out how the libraries will reopen.”

Ellen Bradley, director of the Turner Public Library, said staying closed for a long period of a time wasn’t an option.

“We were the last library in the state to close, and we were one of the first to reopen,” said Bradley. “Our philosophy has not changed: we’re here for the patrons, and if we have the ability to reopen because we have less people coming in, then we’re going to open up.”

The Turner Public Library reopened on June 5, according to Bradley, and so far, she said it has gone smoothly.

Bradley said that the library only allows five people inside at once and requests that they wear a mask.

She said that her staff also requests that parents limit the number of children who come in at once.

“Our children’s area is small enough as it is, and it’s hard to keep tabs on where multiple children are going at once,” Bradley said.

The Turner library staff cleans and quarantines books after they’ve been returned, Bradley added.

“One thing libraries that reopen are doing is quarantining books that a customer touches while browsing, for 72 hours,” Bradley said. “If somebody looks at a book and doesn’t want it, we have them put it aside so we can clean it and keep it quarantined for a few days.”

At the Julia Adams Morse Memorial Library in Greene, the restrictions put in place mirror what many of the other rural libraries in Maine have done.

Library Director Kelli Burnham said that the library reopened on June 11 and has not run into any problems.

“We had a very busy first day, and so far, things are going well,” Burnham said. “I was joking with someone the other day that if we told people they had to stand on their hands before they could come in, they’d do it, because that’s how long we’ve been closed,”

Burnham said that the Greene library has a hand-sanitizing station in the lobby and markers on the ground “every 6 feet, like in retail stores, to show people how far apart they should stand.”

Burnham said that the husband of one of the library’s trustees built a large plexiglass barrier to protect the staff from the customers.

Bradley, however, said that the Turner Public Library decided against a plexiglass barrier as it interfered with her ability to interact with staff.

“That’s like putting up a barrier between us and the public,” Bradley said. “We found some other ways to get around that.”

Some of the libraries in more populated cities have relied on curbside pickup to stay connected with customers, including Lewiston and Auburn.

Mamie Anthoine Ney, director of the Auburn Public Library, said that while Auburn has yet to reopen, they have a date in mind and that “it will be sooner rather than later.”

“We started doing curbside pickup with the general public toward the end of May, and it’s been working very well,” Ney said. “Right now, we’re just concentrating on getting the library ready to open. We’re just working on getting the last pieces of protective equipment we need to keep the staff and customers safe.”

In Lewiston, patrons can reserve books online or by phone, and after the staff collects the requested items, the patron can arrange what time they want to pick it up at the Lewiston library.

McKenney said that while libraries across the state continue to reopen, there are still many obstacles to overcome.

Maine’s libraries, which are heavily reliant on interlibrary loans and van deliveries, were hamstrung by the closing of nonessential businesses and the stay-at-home order at the end of March.

“When everything closed and the stay-at-home order went into effect, we had all kinds of books in the process of being delivered,” McKenney said. “The van delivery process shut down. At that point, we had 30,000 books that were considered contaminated and had to be quarantined for awhile.”

Over the next several weeks, McKenney said that Maine’s libraries will work on starting the delivery service again.

“We’re trying to get all of the books back to where they belong,” she said.

Burnham lauded the efforts of the Maine State Library in allowing many of the state’s rural libraries to reopen.

“They’ve been fantastic through all of this,” Burnham said. “They held weekly Zoom meetings and were reaching out to all of us. Rural libraries don’t normally have many connections to the rest of the community, so those meetings were very helpful and supportive.”

McKenney said that 10 libraries have expressed interest in collecting stories about living under COVID-19 and publishing them at some point.

“When all of this started happening, Ben Treat, (director of the Bangor Public Library), said that he was digging into his archives and seeing how people in 1918 dealt with the Spanish Flu pandemic,” McKenney said. “That was the last time something like this happened. Some of our librarians said that they’d like to set up websites to collect stories, pictures, poems, conversations with people about living during the time of the coronavirus.”

“I think it’s important,” McKenney added. “Documenting these things as they happen, it could be helpful in the future.”


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