Montclair Public Library
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By GWEN OREL
During Superstorm Sandy, people went to the library to charge their phones.
Read the papers.
And see other people.
Libraries have been community hubs for a long time — not just a place to do research and get books, but also a place to see art, hear a lecture, meet with a club, take a class. (Last week, April 19-25, was National Library Week.)
The Montclair Public Library building is closed during the pandemic, but the library itself is up and running.
The library’s first virtual Open Book/Open Mind will take place on Sunday, May 3, at 4 p.m., featuring Ada Calhoun talking about her book “Why We Can’t Sleep.” She will talk with Montclair resident, journalist and producer Maureen Connolly of EverydayHealth.com.
It already has more than 100 registrations.
On Monday, May 4, the library will hold a virtual lecture on depression from Thomas S. Larson, LSCW. The Adult School of Montclair is offering some virtual classes this spring, including beginner ukulele, improving your garden, and beginner Italian.
Other programs MPL is offering include Storytime, book clubs, and virtual demonstrations.
And of course, books and movies and magazines are available for download through different apps such as Hoopla, Kanopy, and Overdrive.
“Just because we’re closed doesn’t mean we stop working,” said library Director Peter Coyl.
AN ESSENTIAL PART OF THE COMMUNITY
At first, Coyl thought the library could remain open, with care taken to disinfect books and social-distancing measures enforced.
After Coyl received word that Gov. Phil Murphy would be closing schools, he decided to close the library on Friday, March 13.
“I knew if we were open and schools were closed, that students would come to the library,” he said. The library is essential, and a vital part of the community, which made closing “the only responsible action to take.”
In lockdown, people are finding time to read.
Alexandra Alazio said in an email, “Now is a great time to catch up on things I haven’t gotten around to reading over the past few months — including re-reading classic Vonnegut and zoning out with some magazines (piled high on my coffee table but getting better).”
MPL has worked hard to offer online content so patrons can still have access to information and resources.
Making that pivot has been challenging, Coyl said. Although he was able to keep everyone on for the first four weeks, some of the part-time and hourly staff have been furloughed with CARES Act funding, through which employees who are furloughed are eligible for an additional weekly benefit of $600 in Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation in addition to the state Unemployment Insurance benefit.
Some days have seen 350 people “visit” the library. Staff are adjusting to the learning curve to present things online, using the platform GoToMeeting, which has a high audience capacity.
And the demand for streaming services and downloads has increased by more than 50 percent.
“That’s heartening. People are still using the library,” Coyl said.
However, the library does not have as many eBooks as real books, and borrowing time is shorter, too.
“I just requested some eBooks from the library but found that I’m way down on the waiting list for my requests,” Alazio said. “A sign of the times, I suppose! With the internet fostering a culture of quick reads and headlines only, it’s so important to slow down and go deep into reading something you love.”
Creativebug, Coyl explained, is a craft database with how-to videos for crafters — a virtual substitution for the craft classes the library would offer in person. Lynda.com is a website from LinkedIn that offers virtual classes, primarily in business and design. Some databases that normally would only be available onsite are now available online, including the Foundation Directory Online. Ancestry.com is also available remotely.
Tutor.com is a resource for students to use, and the library has shared videos on getting started with it.
Not everyone has access to the internet, so the library is partnering with Toni’s Kitchen to distribute information about delivering pre-loaded learning tablets. And it will still deliver actual books to home-assisted customers.
Molly Hone, the head of adult services (who also co-authors Montclair Local’s “History & Heritage” with Mike Farrelly; Hone supplies archival photographs), answers patron questions. “Everything has increased since we’ve closed the physical doors,” Hone said. “I get everything from ‘I don’t know my library card number’ to ‘How do I set up streaming movies on Kanopy?’ We’ve definitely seen an increase in usage.”
The Foundation Directory Online has been in use. The building’s being closed has made people more aware of the library’s online offerings, she said.
Open Book/Open Mind will have two virtual book clubs about Calhoun’s book “Why We Can’t Sleep,” one the week before, and one the week after. The auditorium can only hold 160 people, but the livestream of the event can register 500.
“That’s the silver lining,” Hone said. “We can expand our reach, so more people can participate.”
And as always, everything is free.
Small children need to keep hearing stories, with different words, says Joseph Rivera, branch manager of the Bellevue Avenue Library.
MPL offers virtual Storytimes on Mondays and Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
Rivera misses being able to look the children in the eye and hearing their voices answer
He also cannot tell exactly what age he’s reading to, so he asks questions that are appropriate for tots through second grade, he said. “What color is this?” he might ask, and a parent will type a response in comments.
For older children, he’ll ask, “What do you think is going to happen next?”
Every week, he reads two or three stories around a theme. Last week’s theme, honoring Earth Day, was about recycling. Rivera read “Michael Recycle Meets Litterbug Doug” by Ellie Bethel, and “Recycling Day” by Edward Miller.
Since he does not have a full library of children’s books at home, he still goes in person to the branch, once a month, to pick them up.
In between the stories, he plays guitar, hoping children are singing at home, and tells nursery rhymes.
“I coach the parents. I say, ‘If you’re interested, type the name of the child you’re with in the chat.’ I can call them by name, and bring back a little of that personal feeling,” Rivera said.
While it is hard singing without the little voices, it’s not as strange as all that — even onsite, some children are too young to sing, and parents are reluctant.
What feels most different is not looking in the children’s eyes.
“It’s like singing to a mirror and expecting a response,” he said.
But he’s confident that it’s important: “People didn’t stop needing this. After the first one, someone on Facebook messaged us right away showing appreciation for Storytime.”
The numbers reflect that: Ordinarily there might be 30 or 40 people at a Storytime. One week he had 150 views.
“Everyone is looking for something to do with their children,” he said.
Kathy Bowden said on Facebook that she checked out a tote bag full of books for her 6-year-old grandson the day the library closed. His kindergarten class at Bradford School uses Epic Reader, which gives access to a variety of books. She herself is reading on Kindle now that she has time. However, she added, “I really miss browsing the stacks, books on paper, and our friendly librarians.”
Some parents welcome Storytime as a little break. Others help the children with the words. It’s hard for parents to get new children’s books right now.
Unlike books for grown-ups, which work well on an eReader, children’s books need to be in full color, and generally need to be seen in color. They don’t work well on a smartphone.
“I didn’t know how to do this yesterday, but now let’s move as much as we can online” has been the overall response from MPL and other libraries, Rivera said.
“It proves how resilient we can be. When this is over, we might still have online programs to reach people,” he said. “The main question is how do we make the programs more personal? I feel like we’ll be in this position for a while.”
A CHANCE TO CONNECT
Older kids don’t so much need to hear words read to them as to exchange words with one another, said Kiersten Paine, teen services librarian.
She’s been moving the teen programming into a virtual space. So far, there have been three book clubs and a baking demo — Paine showed herself making no-bake peanut butter
cookies at home.
For the book clubs, rather than choose one book for everyone to read, which would be difficult with limited copies of eBooks available, the clubs have organized around themes.
The first week’s was dystopian and science fiction, the second was historical fiction, and the third was realistic fiction.
“They start off talking about books, but then have a chance to connect and talk about anything they’ve experienced,” Paine said. “They’ve shared favorite quarantine recipes. It’s an opportunity to touch base.”
MPL publicizes the events on its website, Facebook, and Instagram stories. Unlike Storytimes, the teen groups have participant faces visible. To avoid possible hacking, like the Zoom bombing that made the news recently, interested teens write in and Paine sends them a link.
The Teen Advisory Board, which has about 30 kids, has also continued to meet.
The TAB usually discusses upcoming programming. The most recent meeting discussed what to do in the virtual space.
Some of the teens said they missed the baking, so Paine thought she’d give it a try. “I had to angle the computer so they could see what I was doing,” she said with a laugh. “It was a fun experiment.”
“Mostly, they wanted a chance to see each other and talk again,” she said. “It’s a space where they can talk about something other than school, other than the news, and a chance for them to see each other, in a way, even if it’s not the way they’d see each other in person, it’s still a chance to see people their own age.”
There’s a sense of uncertainty among teens, Paine said, but the programs have helped. Paine received an email after a meeting that said, “That was really fun. I missed TAB. You’re a great supervisor.”