Library Q&A | Looking Ahead: The Post-Pandemic Library

with Pat Basler and Lena Kilburn

NOTE: This is Part III of a three part Library Q&A series. Head to our news section to read Parts I and II, or listen to the full podcast below!

Welcome to Finegold Alexander’s 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.

In our last two Q&A sessions, we’ve discussed the many challenges COVID-19 has placed on our communities and the creative ways in which Stoughton Public Library and Christa McAuliffe Branch Library have worked to keep their communities connected. As vaccines continue to roll out, our economy restarts, and the community adapts to our highly-digital world, we are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. However, for libraries and other community resources what lies beyond in this post-pandemic world is nebulous. How will technology and digital communications programs play a role in our every day lives? How long until we get back to “normal”? And what will libraries, which have gone through an accelerated, fundamental shift in their purpose and place in the community, look like in a post-pandemic world?

For our last installment with Pat and Lena, we’re seeking to answer these very questions, using the lessons the pair has taken from their respective libraries to help us understand the next era for libraries in both design and practice. Keep scrolling to read out interview or listen to the podcast above for the full discussion.

Opening night at Stoughton Public Library: a scene we may someday see again.

Q: How did your staff adjust to the library and the pandemic, and what do you see going forward?

Lena: Yeah, it’s not been easy but our staff has adjusted incredibly well. I think one of the things that we knew was really critical is having a plan and keeping them really engaged. In Framingham, we come at our staffing plan with a real team-based approach. Everyone has a voice, everyone has a seat at the table, there are a lot of committees and a lot of involvement. There’s no bad ideas in there – well some bad ideas but we want to hear them even if they are bad. One of the important things was that they felt a part of what was happening. Communication was critical. We were always sending emails or newsletters out every night. At the point I fully took over for Mark [Contois] I was able to ratchet it back to once a week. I think the way that they’ve adapted has been really remarkable, and I think that the reason why they were able to do it so successfully is because they were a part of the plan and process. They have a mission to help and we were doing things that were important like pulling lists of seniors to call and checking in on them. That was important work, but its tough. We just did a wellness program for staff as we’re entering this new phase of opening to make sure they were ready psychologically. Nobody has gone through this unscathed, right?

Pat: As Lena said, communication was key. Up until the last couple of months, we had weekly staff meetings on Zoom where even the people who were in the building that day had to participate. There’s just so much misinformation and some of our staff were older and isolated, they lived by themselves. The good thing about having the weekly meetings was, if they didn’t know how to do Zoom they had to learn it pretty quickly. I would call them and say “Do you need help connecting? Because we need to see your face”. Part of that was just that physical connection and allowing people to speak and talk about their concerns, but also just to see them because its been a year. I haven’t seen half the staff in a year. That’s hard.

They also don’t get to bump into each other in the break room or at the water cooler. I closed the break room and there’s no lunches in the building. You have to eat separately in a quiet space somewhere. So you miss all of those little interactions that people might have that are positive and negative. Say you irritated somebody, you can’t go make it up to them an hour later when you bump into them. It’s just those kinds of things fester. It’s taken quiet a bit of social work in a way to get people to continue communicating with each other. It’ll be interesting to see how everybody will be. I think they’ll be grateful to be back together and see each other, but it’s hard for everybody. They don’t teach you any of this in library school!

Q: Once we’re past this, do you think the community will essentially come rushing back? Will they embrace things as they are?

Pat: I really can’t guess. Honestly, I think that everyone’s different. I had a woman yesterday who was irate because we weren’t open full time. She only comes in and gets magazines every week. So I don’t know what else she wants to do, but she just wants to do it. I had to talk her down off the ledge and say “I understand you’re anxious, but the town manager, myself and the people who are making these decisions are trying to protect us all.” I think when we finally are open the people who are like that woman will be right there. But there’s still some people who are going to be very reluctant to come in and hang out for hours like they used to. Every library has a little club of elderly men or women who come in every morning and read the paper together. There’s just all these social pods that occur all the time and some of those people have died, some of those people may not be comfortable doing that anymore, we just don’t know.

I imagine, especially since we both have new buildings, that people want to be somewhere they feel safe. As long as we can continue to make sure the libraries are safe, we will eventually be there. Again, it’s libraries, our community center. They really are your living room for the community. If we just open up the doors and had no mask requirement and no sanitizer, some people aren’t going to go in because they’re not going to feel safe. It’s going to take time.

Book browsing at Christa McAuliffe Branch Library

Q: Lena - Since you just reopened browsing this week, what are you actually seeing even now?

Lena: It started slowly, we knew that folks who are coming in using our curbside pickup were going to come in or continue to use curbside because we did maintain that, and that’s kind of what’s happened. Part of the challenges has been messaging. We work really hard to get the word out about what’s happening at the library and our most current offerings, but it just takes a long time for people to kind of catch on that something new is happening. So it has started, we have patrons a little bit more every day. It’s just going to take some time. And as Pat says, it is hard to know. Everybody has different circumstances, some people are vaccinated, some people aren’t and we’re still really very much in the throes of this. It’ll be difficult to see what is next or what will come down the pike, but we’ll be ready. I think we’re going to have safety measures in place for a very long time and phase in more services slowly, upping our capacities when it’s safe. Right now, our capacities are pretty conservative, but we’ll start allowing access to meeting rooms and small group study rooms. Right now, we’re just so happy that the patrons can come in and actually browse our shelves. It’s really wonderful.

“Right now, we’re just so happy that the patrons can come in and actually browse our shelves. It’s really wonderful.”
-Lena Kilburn
The Prow Lounge at Christa McAuliffe Branch Library: A Space for Community Gathering (Pre-Pandemic)

Q: How do we imagine the library of the future? How much more flexibility do you need?

Pat: For us in this particular situation, we have such a nice big open lobby and other storage that we weren’t using. The flexibility within the design worked for us for this situation. If you had open spaces without sort of back-of-the-house storage and community rooms that you weren’t using, that could have been a problem because a lot of libraries packed up all their furniture and put it somewhere. We didn’t do that, we ended up just opening access to the first floor only. Most of the rooms are up on the second floor like all the other meeting rooms and the quiet study.

To me, and I’m not sure if this is even feasible for an architect, it would be useful to think about putting more importance on the outside space as well as the inside. That was the real issue here. Our recreation department has really no space, but they invested a lot of money into one of those portable blow up movie screens. If we had space in our parking lot we would have shown movies every Friday night, but we ended up doing it at the golf course because that was a better space. I never would have thought about an outdoor movie screen to come out and hang off of a wall, but maybe that’s a good idea.

“You have to think of all the space and during a pandemic, the outdoor space really became as important as the indoor space.”
-Pat Basler

Lena: I agree 100%. We repurposed this space as a “learning yard” and then when the weather was good, we did pop up browsing there before we could open the buildings. McAuliffe does have a really beautiful outdoor space where we were already doing summer concerts and outdoor movies. We’re now planning on doing more outdoor things as the weather gets nicer. I think outdoor space as usable library spaces makes a lot of sense.

A special thanks to Pat Basler and Lena Kilburn for participating in our Library Q&A, and to our team Ellen Anselone, Tony Hsiao and Josephine Penta! Stay tuned for more Library Q&A in the near future.