|Mattea Baez, a rising fourth grader at John S. Martinez School, picked up two princess-themed books Monday. Lucy Gellman Photos.|
Eight-year-old Mattea Baez and her mom Alejandra Miranda jogged up the ramp to the Wilson Branch Library. The front door opened just a crack, and Library Technical Assistant Karina Gonzalez peeked out. The two grinned at each other behind their masks, eyes crinkling at the corners. Gonzalez handed off a small stack of books, wrapped neatly in brown paper.
Mattea giggled with delight and looked over the titles. It was the first time she’d seen the library—and some of her favorite stories not on a screen—in four months.
Monday, Miranda joined dozens of New Haven bibliophiles trying out a new curbside pickup model at New Haven Free Public Library, which has been entirely virtual since March 13. After a week of beta testing among library staff, pickup is available at the Fair Haven, Wilson, Mitchell and Ives branches of the library. The Stetson Branch, located in the city's Dixwell neighborhood, will start curbside pickup on July 13.
“We’re trying to be as safe as possible, but we’re also trying to get back to where we are running,” said City Librarian John Jessen Monday, ducking under a tent for shade. “That’s the thing with COVID. It’s fascinating. You’re never sure of anything, so we’re trying to look ahead 14 days in the future. That’s where we are.”
|José Flores, who is used to working inside as a security guard, now mans an outdoor table where patrons can pick up their book requests. By Monday at noon, the library had done two and was expecting to do another two.|
Currently, the system runs on scheduled pickups to protect the safety of both library staff and patrons. Patrons can request books online or call the library; librarians then pull requests and place them in a contact-free or contact-minimal space. Downtown, for instance, uses a tent and a sanitized table. On Monday, Wilson was using its enclosed lobby while setting up a similar tent for future use.
When books are returned, they sit in a room for 72 hours before they are handled. After three days—the time that COVID-19 can survive on mylar—they are returned to their shelves, and put back into circulation.
All of the library’s virtual programs still exist online, including a new chat feature through which patrons can make requests and ask questions, as well as virtual meetups, story times, book clubs, and the library’s Virtual Artrepreneur Series. Its Summer Learning programs and scheduled events have also gone virtual, but participation has declined and been inconsistent compared to last year, particularly at some of the branch locations.
After launching the system Monday morning, Public Service Administrator Sharon Lovett-Graff said that the downtown branch had received over 40 requests in under three hours. Those did not include holds that were placed before March 12, which the library is also fulfilling. At the library’s satellite branches, requests were trickling in, with a steady flow of pickups between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.
|Top: Public Services Administrator Sharon Lovett-Graff, who was previously the head of the Mitchell Branch in Westville. Bottom: Tom Pursell picks up Devil In The White City.|
Downtown, one of the first was Tom Pursell, a lawyer who grew up going to the Mitchell Branch Library in Westville, and still lives in the same neighborhood today. After a quick call to Lovett-Graff, he had made the trek downtown to pick up a copy of Devil In The White City for his daughter. The book tells the story of a serial killer at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.
While he noted that “it’s not the same” as coming in and browsing among the stacks, he praised the curbside pickup for restoring part of what he’s missed so much since March. Lovett-Graff said that’s part of the hope. Despite a large increase in the library’s digital platforms—use of Overdrive, RB Digital, Hoopla and Kanopy has increased between 70 and 108 percent—she’s talked to some patrons who can’t get behind e-books or prefer print resources.
“When we closed, we closed so abruptly that people didn’t have a chance to reserve the items they wanted, or retrieve the items they’d reserved,” Lovett-Graff said. “It’s good to know that people are so eager. I’m really relieved to be back. We’re just gonna take it slow and try and fulfill the needs of our ravenous readers.”
Close to where she stood, ravenous reader Polly Gulliver approached the checkout table with her large white poodle, Ziggy, who is named as a nod to both Ziggy Marley and Ziggy Stardust. Gulliver, who lives downtown on Orange Street, was there to pick up two mysteries by the Norweigen novelist Jo Nesbø. She’d brought a gift, too: a brand new copy of Richard Powers’ The Overstory, the library’s copy of which Ziggy ate during quarantine.
“He came into our room and just took it,” she said to Lovett-Graff and Maria Tonelli, who manages circulation services. For a moment, it was just three friends and a huge, panting poodle catching up. Then the reality of their masks, muffled voices, and distance sunk in.
Inside, masked, socially distanced staff fielded queries as phones rang and emails poured in from patrons. Back at her desk in the library’s teen center, Teen Librarian Meghan Currey put the finishing touches on a flyer advertising curbside pickup to teens. She is also organizing this year’s summer reading program for teens, despite the distance. She said it was good to be back, but strange: the teen center is usually the last place one can hear a pin drop.
At the reference desk upstairs, librarian Allison Botelho looked over an email that had just come in, requesting the maximum of 10 books at a time. Seth Godfrey, manager of adult learning and reference, walked along the side of the desk as if it were an old friend. He picked up a list from the printer—close to 60 books had been requested, and the library still had hours to go.
Librarian Marianne Carolla, nodding as she listened to a patron over the phone, shot him a look. She tempered it almost immediately with a smile.
“Hey,” she said as he looked over requests for summer reading, children’s and young adult literature, and dozens of fiction titles. “That’s my list!”
Around them, the building was strangely quiet. Chairs sat overturned on tables. Plants, some barely alive, were framed in the side windows. A table with printed bus schedules stood untouched. New books and bestsellers winked out from the front of the space. Jessen looked mournfully at an empty case, lined with black construction paper, where staff removed a book display on March 13.
“It almost looked like the Grinch had come through,” he said of that Friday.
Now, he’s hoping to approach some standard of normalcy—even if it’s new normalcy. Jessen called curbside pickup the first step in welcoming patrons slowly back into the library itself, ultimately at what he hopes can be half capacity.
|City Librarian John Jessen.|
For months, he’s been thinking about how to reopen the library’s basement computer lab, which provides access to technology, internet, and printing that many patrons may not have at home. A locking partition separates the space (which includes the bathrooms) from the rest of the library, meaning that staff could open a single section and keep the rest of the building closed.
He added that there are already new safety measures in place, after dozens of Zoom meetings that rehashed the minutiae of hand sanitizer, elevator use, and how to wear city-supplied face masks and shields. Earlier this year, the library hired a new “roaming cleaner,” who travels from branch to branch during the day to sanitize. It marks a change from pre-COVID cleaning practices, under which branches would typically be cleaned at night.
The organization is also working on a self-checkout system, although Jessen does not know when it will be safe to launch. It comes at a time when resources are still tight: May, the library received a $60,000 cut to its database and collections management line item in the final city budget. Another $15,000 cut came from the communications and office equipment line item.
|Luis Chavez-Brumell, who is the branch manager at the Wilson Branch in the city's Hill neighborhood.|
At other branches Monday, staff also watched as requests flowed in. Alejandra Miranda, who lives in Fair Haven, has been calling the library once a week, every week since it closed its doors in mid-March. The Wilson Branch has become a second home for her: she said she was amazed when someone picked up the phone on Monday.
No sooner had she heard a voice—a voice in the library, rather than a recording—than she made a request and got in the car with Mattea. When she saw staff waiting for her, she pumped her arms as if she was preparing for a little victory dance. She grinned, her eyes lighting up behind a fabric mask.
“My favorite part of reading is to think about the person who wrote the book, and try to imagine what was in their head,” said Mattea, a rising fourth grader at John S. Martinez School.
A self-described unicorn enthusiast ("they're just so magical"), she proudly showed off her new reads: Meg Cabot’s Princess In Pink and Shannon and Dean Hale’s The Princess In Black. The two also checked out a copy of The Addams Family, which they’ve been watching as a cartoon.
Miranda, who has spent months navigating distance learning, e-books, and video tutorials, praised the library’s virtual resources. "If it wasn't for the apps, we would have gone a little crazy at home," she said.
She added there’s nothing quite like a physical book—or the space, which she's still missing. Before COVID-19, Mattea was a student in the library's READy for the Grade program, a collaboration with the NewAlliance Foundation that helped the library snag the nation's highest library honor last year. The program is virtual now.
“Reading takes you to other places,” she said. “You can sit on your couch, and be in the ocean. You can dim the lights, and pretend to go somewhere. We understand why they [the library] closed when they did, but it’s just a very good thing that they’re open for this.”
Inside, Branch Manager Luis Chavez-Brumell was fielding emails from patrons. His colleague passed on the name of Stratford resident Mary Cotter, who was looking for an Italian book that only the Wilson Library had in its collection. Through borrowing privileges, Chavez-Brumell was able to register for a library card. She requested the book at 12:45 p.m. She had it in her hands less than an hour later.
“I was really floored,” she wrote in an email. “I just did not expect this level of kindness and help extended to a stranger -- in the middle of a pandemic, no less. These guys ROCK!!!!!”
Several miles away at the Fair Haven Branch, a single pickup was planned for Monday morning as a few new requests filtered through the system. Inside, librarians prepared a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric for Susan Hackett, who had scheduled a 10:30 a.m. pickup.
|Susan Hackett, who goes by Sue. Arturo Pineda Photo.|
Last year this time, over 150 children from 4 to 18 cycled through the Fair Haven Branch as part of their summer learning. Children played with lizards and snakes, listened to live music performances in Spanish, and at least once saw an escape artist pull his entire body through a hollowed out tennis racket.
Adults attended catered community gatherings to break bread and meet their neighbors. Volunteers and library staff harvested swiss chard, kale, and other vegetables from the community garden right around the corner on Thursday mornings. The women’s senior citizen book club met on Wednesday afternoons. A group of senior citizens might be having lunch watching Victoria on PBS.
Curbside pickup isn’t the same, said Branch Manager Kirk Morrison. He noted the loss of in-person programming, access to technology, and the branch’s reciprocal relationship with senior citizens at the nearby Mary Wade Home, which has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. But he’s hoping curbside will be a step towards getting back some of what the library has lost.
“It is a challenge to stay in touch with patrons,” he said. “There is a clear digital divide between this community and more affluent neighborhoods in the city,” he said. “We relied on in-person gathering to form a community.”
|Maria Tonelli at the downtown Ives Branch.|
Hackett, a Fair Haven resident and avid library goer, mentioned the same absence when she came to pick up her book. She ran an informal English conversation group on Wednesday evenings. One woman attended her group for two years straight. Due to COVID-19, the group has been cancelled since March.
“Reading has been a lifesaver during these times,” she said.
She’s been following Now Read This, the PBS NewsHour’s book club with The New York Times, to choose books. On Monday she picked up Rankine’s Citizen, a collection of essays, images and poetry which comments on being Black in American. The book touches on the killing of Trayvon Martin, the arrest of The Jena Six, and portrayals of Black women in the media.
Going forward, the branch is looking to begin more initiatives around health literacy. Prior to COVID-19, the library had partnered with JUNTA for Progressive Action and the Fair Haven Community Health Center, to invite doctors and community members to the library to attend informal presentations about a variety of topics, such as depression, anxiety, or healthier lifestyles.
During the interview, a woman arrived asking to use the printer for an emergency. Morrison turned her away reluctantly, as the library is not allowing people inside or allowing any materials to leave or enter the building until they’ve been quarantined for more than three days.
“You can’t win,” Morrison said. “I want to print the materials but I can’t for everyone’s health.”
Back downtown, Jessen suggested that there was a middle ground—maybe because he’s been hearing some version of that question for weeks. Even before people can come back into the computer lab, he said that patrons may be able to send staff documents, and pick up the printed materials.
To access the New Haven Free Public Library's website, request books, or use the chat function click here.