As patrons again begin to peruse the stacks in Littleton’s Bemis Library at the end of January, they will re-enter a place that may feel as comfortable and familiar as the community library ever …
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As patrons again begin to peruse the stacks in Littleton’s Bemis Library at the end of January, they will re-enter a place that may feel as comfortable and familiar as the community library ever has.
But behind the scenes, Bemis is in the midst of a transition that will reshape the library for years to come — the outcome of a COVID-era trial by fire that has hindered some offerings but may put the library on the path to a brighter future.
“It’s been a challenge to deliver the services we’re so passionate about,” said Nancy Trimm, the library’s former deputy director, who took the helm as director in November amid a reshuffling of roles in city government. “But libraries are rife with creative, innovative people. We’re rolling with the punches.”
There has been no shortage of punches. When COVID struck last March, the library shut down completely, not reopening for curbside material pickup until late May, and patrons weren’t allowed back inside until mid-July.
The library mostly shut its doors to the public again following a COVID spike in late fall, only allowing a handful of computer users at a time. As virus numbers drop again, the library is back open to 35 patrons at a time.
Sputtering city finances, clobbered by plunging sales tax revenues, delivered another blow.
Between layoffs, positions left unfilled and early retirements, the library is down 11 positions, from 36 before the pandemic to 25 now — so few that the library’s operating hours are down from 68 a week a year ago to just 40 a week now.
In with the new
But even as the library has reeled from ever-changing occupancy limits and staff cuts, it has stayed on its toes with new offerings.
Curbside pickup now accounts for 3,000 item checkouts a week. Virtual or livestreamed events now include children’s storytime, book clubs, speaker series, health and wellness programs and senior social clubs. In a first, the Smithtonians handbell choir livestreamed their holiday concert.
Reference librarians now staff an online chat service that offers everything from book recommendations to homework help. The library’s popular technology help service is now available over the phone or Zoom.
Other projects that were in motion before COVID came at a great time: Thanks to an intergovernmental agreement with Littleton Public Schools, every LPS student’s school ID now doubles as a Bemis card, giving access to vast research databases, and even a streaming service loaded with movies and documentaries.
“We’re always striving to expand our service to the community, and how people can interact with us,” Trimm said. “A lot of this is stuff we would have wanted to get to in coming years anyway, but COVID really pushed us to get the ball rolling a lot faster.”
Bridging the digital divide
But all the digital offerings in the world can’t replace some of the library’s core functions: first, as a gathering place.
“It’s a social community center,” Trimm said. “It’s a weekly or even daily visit for a lot of people, many of whom don’t have a lot of other places to go or people to visit. We build a lot of personal relationships.”
Second, and more critically during hard times, as a place to bridge the digital divide.
“It’s a fallacy that all people have abundant broadband internet access,” Trimm said. “There are a lot of people who can’t afford connectivity. They rely on the library to get connected with government services like unemployment, to fill out job applications, and even to connect with friends on social media. A lot have low computer literacy skills and need the assistance of library staff. Many of them need us to help them set up an email account before they can do anything. Not having that access can be a huge setback in their lives.”
Libraries are also a crucial resource for people experiencing homelessness, Trimm said. Libraries are safe and warm, with outlets to charge cell phones, and are one of very few public places that don’t charge admission or expect a purchase.
“More importantly, they’re a place you can feel like you belong,” she said. “Being open and welcoming to all is absolutely our mission, and we take it seriously.”
Bemis also serves as a point of contact for people without homes to connect to other resources like shelters, food banks and mental health care, Trimm said.
“We get to know a lot of our unhoused neighbors, and we worry about them when we’re closed,” she said.
A brighter future
As vaccines roll out and the end of the COVID era comes into focus in the distance, Trimm said Bemis is looking ahead to a brighter future.
Thanks to a substantial donation from an anonymous donor, the library is working on its first-ever “makerspace,” which will offer everything from 3D printers to video and audio recording equipment. The room is expected to be open in May.
The library is in the early stages of drafting a new strategic plan that will incorporate many of the lessons learned during COVID.
Other projects are gearing up, including a partnership with a GIS specialist who is mapping where library card holders live so library staff can do targeted outreach to underserved parts of town.
City officials say they are committed to supporting the library and rebuilding it to full strength.
Bemis is “one of the most important facilities in the entire city,” said Kelli Narde, who heads the city division that includes the library, museum, and communications department. “It’s not law enforcement or paving, but it’s nonetheless an extremely valuable asset for the community.”
Narde said it’s not yet clear what a full-strength Bemis Library would look like in the future, but more operating hours are key.
“It will take a strong economy to get us there, but the demand for service is clearly there,” she said. “We’ll have to stay efficient. It won’t look like before.”
Bemis is the pride of Littleton, said City Manager Mark Relph.
“It’s a part of our community that is so unique and has never failed to impress me with its innovation,” Relph said. “It can be easy to take a library for granted, but for a segment of our population it’s absolutely vital. Continuing to ensure vulnerable people have access to the services they provide, to internet connectivity and everything that comes with it, that’s huge.”
Relph said the cuts to the library’s staffing were unfortunate necessities in the depths of the COVID crisis, and to ensure the cuts were worth the trouble, they must be largely maintained for at least a year.
“That said, we at the city are beginning to evaluate what the recovery period will look like,” he said. “We still have some tough calls to make, but we’re trying to be hopeful.”
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