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Area libraries closed but continue to serve patrons

While the physical buildings are closed to the public due to concerns around the coronavirus, area libraries are working hard behind the scenes to keep things circulating.

Patrons who have materials checked out should hold on to them for now, as late fees at most libraries are being waived and due dates are being extended. Many libraries are also issuing new library cards over the phone for those who don't have one.

"Right now, our focus is to serve the patrons as much as we can during these difficult times," said Madhu Gupta, director of the Public Library of New London. "We want to keep our community safe, we want to keep our community healthy, and that's the sole reason we had to close the library, but we would like to be engaged and committed to our community."

The staffing situation varies site to site; some libraries have staff working from home, where others are still in the building. Gupta said she's sending two staff members at a time back to the library to finish or retrieve items, picking people who work in different departments to avoid contact.

Gale Bradbury, director of Ledyard Libraries, said staff members are on site working on projects such as reviewing the collection, processing new books to put in the system, and planning for future programs. She said they often don't have time for those kinds of administrative tasks when the buildings are open to the public, though they definitely prefer being busy working with customers.

Groton Public Library Director Jennifer Miele said that in addition to projects and trainings, staff members there are using the time to work on improvements to the space, and the town IT department can now work on the building's internet service without interrupting patrons who might be working.

But being in the building while it's closed has been hard, considering that the job centers on serving the public. Lyme Public Library Director Theresa Conley said she and her staff know most of their patrons on a first-name basis, given that Lyme is such a small town.

"They're our friends and our neighbors, and it's very hard not being able to let them in," she said. "We miss them as people just talking to them and seeing them."

"Our whole ethos revolves around community engagement and connecting to our patrons," said Karen Wall, director of the Mystic and Noank Library. "So we're just having to be creative right now."

For her staff, that meant creating a Little Free Library-style setup outside the main entrance, where patrons can take home books that had been taken out of circulation or donated to the library. That way, Wall said, those who prefer to read a physical book can still find something new to read while the library is closed.

Several directors interviewed said they've been fielding a lot of questions about their library's online resources. While each library has different programs and databases available to patrons, popular services include e-books, audiobooks, educational materials and language-learning resources, all available with a library card.

Roz Rubinstein, director at the Waterford Public Library, said staff have been working with patrons over the phone to teach them how to access the different system. She said they put a message on their social media accounts advertising the library's new phone signup for new cards, Wednesday, and by midday Thursday they'd had 10 people call to sign up.

"We had one customer who called and got a library card for the first time [who] said he's a caregiver for his grandchild," she said. "Now he can go on and they can read these picture books online."

Content for children has been of particular interest with area schools closing for the foreseeable future. Tumblebooks, the platform Rubinstein referred to, provides animated picture books for families to enjoy. Normally it's a service each library pays for, but the company is offering it for free during the outbreak. Gupta said the children's department in New London is also hosting a weekly storytime via Facebook and posting crafting activities.

And as the local and global situation keeps changing, libraries want to remain a reliable resource for the community. Miele said that while closing the building to the public was the right move on behalf of the employees and the patrons — Groton also closed its book drop box this week because the virus can stay on materials for days — they still have a moral responsibility to their patrons.

"As a public service, this is usually what we excel at. When we have hurricanes or blizzards, people come here, and we triage in person," she said, adding that the library has a lot of patrons who come in for services such as Internet access. "We're just trying to figure out with closed doors how we can effectively help these people in this time of crisis."

For more information on closure dates, due date extensions and online resources, contact your local library.

a.hutchinson@theday.com

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