As Beth Heltebridle walked through the lobby at the C. Burr Artz Public Library in downtown Frederick, several tables were lined with books.
That might not seem unusual for a library, but those specific books would typically be lining shelves along a back corner of the lobby, which are reserved for holdings and reservations. Since the middle of last year, however, those shelves have been more sparse, as Heltebridle and Frederick County Public Library staff countywide have transitioned to a curbside pickup model.
The model is due to the coronavirus pandemic, and County Executive Jan Gardner (D) said earlier this year the reason libraries have not reopened their doors in some capacity yet is because many of those library workers are helping run vaccine clinics.
James Kelly, who’s been director of the county’s library system since 2018, said the same this week.
Kelly said roughly 200 staffers serve more than half a dozen branches countywide, and they’ve been helping run vaccine clinics with other county officials, completing administrative tasks and ushering people where they need to go.
Curbside pickup for the libraries’ books and other materials has been popular at every branch since where the service started June 1, 2020, Kelly said. And library staff was providing a plethora of virtual programming services for children and adults in the months leading up to that date, he added.
Kelly knows it’s hard to replicate the feeling of residents walking into their community library and browsing the shelves. He admits there have been some “heated exchanges” with some residents, but overall people have been appreciate of the overall customer service at their library since the pandemic started.
More than 500,000 physical items have been checked out countywide, with more than a million items being checked out digitally through the library system’s online catalogue, he said.
“We do feel our role is a community gathering space, and really we’re one of those places that community building happens, and it was difficult to have to close,” Kelly said. “We are eager to reopen to the community.”
Both Kelly and Heltebridle, the branch administrator at the C. Burr Artz library, said the pandemic has taken a toll on library staff, who miss interacting with community members on a daily basis.
There was some evidence of that Wednesday morning: library staffers at C. Burr Artz helped assist more than half a dozen residents within an hour.
Overall, county libraries have completed about 70,000 curbside transactions since June 1, 2020, Heltebridle said. She’s proud of the customer service her staff of roughly 60 people—split between full-time, part-time and hourly—has been able to maintain since the beginning of the pandemic.
Those 60 staffers work across the children’s, circulation, adult/teen and shelving departments, along with the Maryland Room, a historical archive section on the library’s second floor.
And she still gets emails from county officials daily asking for help to run the vaccine clinics. On some days, when there may be 2,500 shots administered, it’s important to step up and fill those slots.
Still, Heltebridle knows some residents are frustrated that libraries remain closed, and she emphasized staff misses the relationships they have with customers.
“Part of what we do is build relationships with our customers, and so only having that call, or seeing them in their car at curbside and waving and saying, ‘Hope you enjoy this!’ ... We understand that it’s frustrating,” she said. “And we understand that we are a resource for the community, and so we get those calls. We listen, we say we understand, and as soon as we’re able, we’re going to invite full staff in and be excited to see them.”
Heltebridle and Kelly said the next tier of the reopening for libraries would be some form of an appointment basis for computer usage and other essential needs.
The next phases would then be gradually opening up indoor capacity.
Frederick resident Patricia Parris has been an avid user of curbside pickup during the pandemic, averaging about a visit per week. She visited C. Burr Artz on foot Wednesday.
She misses browsing through the library’s selection, but repeatedly thanked the staff at C. Burr Artz for their professionalism, giving them an A+ grade.
“They’re courteous, they’re kind, they’re efficient,” Parris said. “And having the library be closed gives me the chance to be grateful for the source.”