When Denver Public Library announced on Facebook a couple of weeks ago that it would be introducing curbside pickup for books and other materials starting Tuesday, the news was met with a sigh of relief — and even unfettered joy.
“We missed the library most of all,” wrote one library patron.
But there was also impatience — “About time!” read another reply — with the pace of reopening a library system that hosted more than 4.1 million patron visits in 2018 and serves as a gathering spot and connection point for children, older people and those who rely on the library to access the internet.
“My husband goes every day to read the newspapers,” said 82-year-old Zoe Lappin, who often visits the central location downtown to do genealogy research on her family. “A lot of retired people go to the library every day.”
Denver Public Library’s 26 branches have been closed since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic began to race through the state, and a reopening date has yet to be set. While just about every other library district in the metro area remains physically closed as well, many of them have been operating curbside services that allow patrons to check out books and other items.
In Denver, patrons will have to schedule an appointment for curbside service by visiting the library’s website or calling their neighborhood branch. The library will attempt this week to deliver as many of its existing holds — orders put in before the pandemic struck — as possible to patrons curbside. New holds on can be placed on materials beginning July 13.
In fact, state health officials recently said libraries are no longer limited to curbside service. Erika Gonzales, communications director for Denver Public Library, said that won’t change the reopening schedule for the city’s libraries. She said some branches are so small that social distancing would be a near-impossibility.
“Although the governor has included libraries in the order, we’ll have to discuss this with our local officials,” she said. “We follow the local orders. Our teams are working on an opening strategy so that we are prepared when the time comes.”
As the state’s largest library district — with nearly half a million cardholders — Gonzales said it’s not so easy for Denver to just turn the lights back on again, especially in the midst of a pandemic.
With more than 300,000 items checked out at the time the library closed in March and dropoff boxes locked until mid-June, library staff needed time to quarantine returned items and reshelve them before allowing new books to go out.
“We have so many books coming back, we didn’t think we could do both at the same time,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales said Denver faces certain dynamics with its population and size that surrounding suburban library districts don’t, requiring reopening plans to follow a more cautious track.
“We are in an urban core, so our processes and challenges will be different,” she said, noting that an average of 2,500 people a day visit the central Denver location alone. “That’s a massive amount of people who you’re talking about social distancing and cleaning surfaces.”
Cathy Alderman, spokeswoman for the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, understands the need for Denver Public Library to tread cautiously. But she wonders if, as a first step to getting buildings back open, it could offer a dedicated hour or two a day where those without a home might be able to use the library’s computers — akin to how grocery stores are offering early-morning shopping exclusively to vulnerable populations.
“Access to critical public health information is difficult without internet access,” Alderman said.
Homeless people, especially those without phones, are finding it increasingly difficult to communicate with health care providers or housing case managers — or even do something as simple as get a weather forecast, she said.
Even though branches have been closed for more than three months, Denver Public Library hasn’t been dormant, Gonzales said. Virtual programming for all ages has been offered during the pandemic, and downloads of the library’s ebooks have skyrocketed. Whereas there were 887,636 eMedia checkouts in the first five months of 2019, there were 1,030,451 in the January-through-May period this year.
Use of the library’s local music streaming service, Volume, jumped 78%, and Phone a Story visits shot up nearly 75%.
Denver Public Library’s 700-person staff have kept their jobs and pay during the pandemic, and they haven’t been idle, Gonzales said. Many turned to long-term projects and initiatives — such as assignments in the Western History and Genealogy department — that had long been deferred.
Others were asked to prospect for potential library funding sources while some staff helped provide meals to youth outside the Athmar Park Branch Library. Other assignments included evaluating free children’s apps, examining and updating a young adult booklist, and operating a citywide phone bank that called older Denverites to ensure they have the needed resources to get through the COVID-19 crisis.
Still others on the library payroll sewed masks, Gonzales said. She said Denver Public Library left its WiFi network on at all of its branches so that people in need of an internet hotspot could easily find one.
“We kept it on because we know people rely on us so much,” she said.
Mary Venner, 79, called the library a “lifeline” for her. The longtime Denver resident visits the Ross-Barnum branch once a week and enjoys making connections with the staff every time she goes. She spent days, she said, helping the library assess its book collection after a flood several years ago.
“The books and the people are really important to me,” Venner said. “It’s an important part of my life.”
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