Otis Library adapting amid pandemic, changing times
Elizabeth Millhouse says she’s grateful to have Otis Library open again, if only by apointment, because her 7-year-old daughter Clare reads books so fast she can’t keep up with the demand.
By giving her daughter an opportunity to browse the many genres and authors, Millhouse said her daughter might find a new series or idea that interests her.
“I was so excited. I went online and actually reserved a bunch of books for our history class,” said Millhouse, a Yantic resident who is homeschooling two children, including 4-year-old Chase. “Then I heard that you could make a browsing appointment…. The library is a great resource to have.”
“It’s a nice little field trip. It’s a nice break in our day. We did some math and language arts this morning,” added Millhouse, who just returned to the area after being away for eight years.
Even though the ongoing coronavirus pandemic forced the Otis Library to close its doors between late March and July 13, the staff never stopped communicating with patrons, Executive Director Robert D. Farwell said during a telephone interview.
In the beginning, employees returned voicemail, email and social media messages from the library or their homes. On June 15, the library began its ongoing pickup service by appointment in its vestibule.
“We took great pains through social media, our newsletter, Facebook site and home page, which are online to explain what we were doing and why it was necessary,” Farwell said.
He explained that their efforts “were in keeping with the standards that were set across the state by public libraries,” and they never lost contact with staff and other members of the consortium.
“Every week we would have virtual meetings, by Zoom of course. … Each of the libraries in our consortium was able to get a sense of where we were in terms of services and planning.”
Now, people are being allowed inside at scheduled times to browse the library’s collections for 30 minutes and use the computers for a maximum of two hours. However, meeting spaces and restrooms are not available at this time.
To ensure everyone’s safety, people must stay six feet away from others, which means fewer people are allowed in each section of the library.
Because it has been proven that quarantining books and paper materials for 96 hours is the most effective approach, especially since commercial sanitizers “can degrade” them, Farwell said other returned items, including DVDs and CDs, are also isolated for the same length of time to
avoid spreading the virus.
Spaces occupied by the public are also cleaned regularly, and there are Plexiglas barriers at all service points. In addition to enforcing that masks are worn properly, there are floor markers and signs reminding people to maintain distance when taking out books and asking staff questions.
Sanitizing dispensers are also located at the front door and near the children’s section.
Additionally, public and staff computers are cleaned on a regular basis and the keyboard and mouse covers are changed regularly, Farwell said, “so that one user is not exposed to anything that another user may have.”
A visit on Aug. 31 was the first day since the pandemic began that Norwich residents Virgie Kelly and her son, Liam, had made an appointment to browse the library’s collections.
After Liam chose six books and they were about to leave, Kelly said, “It’s not too bad. It’s not crowded. It’s safe.”
In addition, the library’s website offers activities and extensive online databases for adults and children.
There are no on-site group activities scheduled at the library at this time. However, by going online to the library’s website and clicking “Calendar,” you can view a list of activities, including a virtual “Science Fiction and Fantasy Fans Unite!” Program and “Changing Minds Book Club” for adults. Also, children’s pre-recorded story times listed on the calendar can be viewed on YouTube and Facebook. All live events require preregistration.
Teenagers can also tap into their own separate “page” to find books, help with homework and access the Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles’ Practice Test, college and career resources and links for those in crisis under “Self Help.”
Otis Library’s extensive database runs the gamut, including games, e-books, audiobooks, magazine, and language learning resources, as well as Ancestry.com, one of the library’s most popular databases, Farwell said.
“We’ve been taking steps for several years to try and expand the services we provide off site. I think this (the pandemic) has really just propelled us at a faster clip into embracing even more online access and availability,” he said.
As part of the Federal Cares Act, Norwich received 10 Chromebooks, which “are sort of a simplified laptop computer,” Farwell said. “We are making those available if for some reason there is a need on site to allow more people on the computer than we have space for.”
The grant also provided the library with 10 portable hotspots, which it is lending out to patrons, enabling them “to gain access to high-speed Internet using a wireless network,” Farwell said. “We have five of those circulating at the moment.”
Delivering Chromebooks in hotspots to homebound people is already in the planning and experimental stage, “since we know that one of the ramifications of the pandemic is it limits people’s outside access to the world,” and this would address that problem, he added.
Currently, homebound people can request books, DVDs and CDs.
As for the future, Farwell thinks “it’s going to be quite a while” before the Otis Library offers any expanded on-site services. “I certainly think if it is sometime in the late fall, that that would be rapid…I think it’s a matter for us of both ensuring that we have the staff available to provide on-site services and a realization that the public is going to be cautious about returning to any sort of large-scale venue. I think one manifestation of that is our curbside pickup remains very popular even though at this point, we are allowing people to come in and browse through our collections.”
The Otis Library is located at 261 Main Street in downtown Norwich. It is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit otislibrarynorwich.org or call (860) 889-2365.
Jan Tormay is a longtime resident of Norwich now living in Stonington.
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