Library Q&A | Libraries and Our New Normal

with Pat Basler and Lena Kilburn

Stoughton Public Library in Stoughton, Massachusetts

NOTE: This is Part I of a three part Library Q&A series. Stay tuned for Part II and III next week and listen to the full podcast above!

Welcome to the first Finegold Alexander Library Q&A, a “lessons learned” discussion with the directors of libraries designed by Finegold Alexander. This session, conducted during National Library Week, features Pat Basler of Stoughton Public Library and Lena Kilburn of the Christa McAuliffe Branch Library (Framingham Public Libraries). The session is hosted by Finegold Alexander Principal and Library Sector Leader Ellen Anselone, Director of Design Tony Hsiao, and Associate Architect Josephine Penta.

When the COVID-19 Pandemic rocked the world last year, many communities were faced with unprecedented challenges: isolation, remote work and school, delayed learning, and of course a daunting public health crisis. Although they too were facing challenges, public libraries and the staff proved to a beacon of light for the communities they served. Public libraries like Stoughton Public Library and Christa McAuliffe Branch Library provided essential resources and community programming to support remote learning and growth, sustain connections between community members, and ultimately bolster spirits.

Keep scrolling to read our interview with Pat Basler and Lena Kilburn, or listen to the podcast above for the full event.

Stoughton Public Library Second Floor, Stoughton, MA

Q: How are things going in the libraries now with our “new normal”? Have you changed what services you’re providing and how you’re providing them?

Pat: [Stoughton] has followed the governor’s guidelines for the pandemic for COVID-19 since day one. We officially closed the building and it took us about a month to really get a handle. Things have been evolving and changing throughout. But it took us about a month to realize we couldn’t stay closed permanently. And for the town of Stoughton, we were open 64 hours a week, six days a week. And we have a very diverse population that really depends on the library for computer access, assistance with technology, circulation and all the other regular programs as well as a vibrant adult literacy program. Stoughton is sort of a smaller version of Framingham in some ways, we have similar populations, and we both have adult literacy programs. So analyzing what we could do that would help the public through this difficult time of constant unknowns was really how we approached it.

“We have a very diverse population that really depends on the library for computer access, assistance with technology, circulation and... a vibrant adult literacy program.”
-Pat Basler

Lena: I think librarians generally found themselves exactly in that position, which is, okay, we’re forced to close our doors. How do we serve our public? That’s what we do. We know our public needs us, certainly in communities like Framingham and Stoughton, where a lot of the services that we provide are actually really vital to our community. We knew we needed to do something and fast in order to maintain those services as best we could.

Christa McAuliffe Branch Library: Entrance

We closed our doors on March 13. We put together a work from home plan before we left that the staff could execute as soon as they arrived at home. We were lucky enough to have a really engaged staff who turned things around quickly with Mark’s leadership and we actually set in motion right away a plan to start virtual programming that Monday [Mark Contois, Framingham’s former library director]. We were following very closely the guidelines of the state, and our city leadership in our Department of Public Health, and the moment that we could open up our doors again, we started curbside pickup.

Then we started computer appointment access, because like Pat said, that’s really important to our community. So we’ve been through it and we’ve only just reopened for browsing here at Framingham. April 5th, we reopened just this week to allow browsing and that was a whole big process. The first priority was safety for both our community and our staff. The second priority is service. So how can we serve?

Q: You were not in your buildings for a long duration before the shutdown. How did the building serve you before the pandemic and now during the pandemic?

Pat: The first couple months, we really had no idea when we could go back in the building. But by the end of April we were doing virtual programs. Because of the beautiful front porch that we had, as part of our original design, (it’s 100 feet long and 16 feet deep, and it’s covered) it just made sense to start front porch pickup right away. So we implemented that three weeks after we were closed and are continuing it now. And honestly, the public loves it. I think we’ll continue with that when we are fully open. A lot of towns have done it a lot of different ways. They really were determined by the structure of their building. For us, it was just very easy to put everything on the cart and in labeled bags. Sometimes we have three carts out there, but we put everything out at nine in the morning and pull it back in at four or five. We’ve had to let go of things like seeing your library card before I can check books out. We’re doing things over the phone and there’s just more of that.

We didn’t actually let people in the building until November. We let people come in by appointment only because our staff has been split into two teams and we can’t fully staff the building 64 hours a week. As a result, the front porch pickup and virtual programming, was successful and we started a lot of take and make crafts.

Our new building has seven beautiful new spaces, we have quiet study rooms and all this space that we never had before. And that’s the biggest gripe from our patrons is “I want to come use a quiet study room” and we’re like, “no, you can’t yet”. So we weren’t able to do that, but we try to brainstorm on what we could do that would be like that. We’ve been doing a lot of take and make crafts, and cooking programs where people either get the cooking list in advance or we’ll do gift bags with groceries and they cook along on Zoom. It might be chocolate chip cookies, who knows, but it’s just different things that you use to keep people engaged.

Pat Basler Sits at her desk at Stoughton Public Library

Lena: We did so many of the similar things like take and make crafts and cooking. We had written grants for our local Cultural Council that we had to re-envision because most of those grants were for in person programming and we couldn’t execute them because of what was happening. So they allowed us really generously to re-imagine them. We put together cooking carts that we bought all the equipment for and we’ve been filming “cooking shows”. We established a new YouTube channel so we’ve been sharing all of this new content with out patrons. We’ve also been doing book bags – like curated library and curated book bags.

All of these different services have bubbled up through our staff who have just thought of incredibly creative ways to engage. As Pat said, from a building’s perspective, we have two buildings in Framingham including the Christa McAuliffe branch. It’s a very different floor plan than our main library, which was built in 1979. Although we couldn’t allow access inside that building, we did set up computers at the [Christa McAuliffe] branch. The way it was laid out created a certain amount of flexibility with the space that we could take advantage of in order to spread the staff out and spread patron access out. There’s so much beautiful light in that building, so there’s no bad space really anywhere, for patrons or staff. The outside is also covered, so we were able to do our curbside there at the branch. And the same is true for our main library.

Also, the community room at the branch library has big open windows that are easily opened and right in front. We needed a returns process where we could limit our staff interacting with the physical items in the first 72 hours of the book’s quarantine. Now we know more about COVID and know that surfaces are not really how the virus spreads. But at the time, we didn’t know, so we cracked open the window to the community room and built a ramp. This was actually kind of fun. Patrons could come and just slide their items right down the ramp into a box in the community room. Then the staff would just push the box aside and not have to touch the items, wait 72 hours, and then process them.

A Framingham librarian shows off the curbside pickup area at the Framingham Public Library Main Branch

Q: Do you think that the library design could have been done differently? Can we pivot to these features when we are remote?

Pat: Well, we had limitations because of our land limitation. We never had enough parking and all that. Lena was just saying they have a drive-by window, so a drive by book drop would have been nice. We just couldn’t really do that in our situation. Perhaps we could have had a drive-by book drop that was disconnected from the building, but that’s in wintertime in New England so that’s not a great setup. This is something that I would put higher on the priority list.

I also wonder how the drop window into a sorting room is working for libraries that have that, because a lot of those rooms weren’t that big. We had initially designed one I think, but then we didn’t think we could afford it. That room would have been too small to put where we were initially thinking if we were using it today. We had to keep the books in quarantine for three to five days, right? If you’re getting 100 books every day, and they’re on different carts labeled with the data, you just need a bigger space. I think that could be something to take into account: drive by access for returning books. Although you hate to give up such good real estate for that kind of sorting, you really do need it somewhere near there. The way we do it now is the books sit in two different drop boxes on the two different levels. Only one person is allowed with gloves and masks to unload every day and put them on a cart, and then we put that cart somewhere else in a space that’s not being used. Now that it’s down to just 24 hours, it would have been more convenient if there was a bigger space connected to the drop boxes. But who knew?

Lena: For us, we have a similar problem. We do the outdoor book drop and we had a sorting room for the book drop, but it wasn’t big enough. There just wasn’t enough space for the operation the way it had to be and to minimize any kind of contact, we just couldn’t do it. So that’s the solution with the ramp.

I think flexibility is just everything -  the more you can move and maneuver, the more multipurpose space can be, the better. Even before this, that’s where we were all headed in terms of libraries. When I’m thinking about our main library space plan, I’m thinking about how I can create this space that will be multipurpose and flexible. Libraries are always changing every day. They respond, we respond to our communities and what their needs are, so we want to be able to pivot quickly.

“Libraries are always changing every day. They respond to our communities and what their needs are, so we want to be able to pivot quickly.”
-Lena Kilburn

Stay tuned for Part II of our Library Q&A next week: “Beyond Books: Libraries and Technology”.