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LI public libraries reopening with safety measures, emptier than before

The Smithtown Library reopened on Thursday with safety

The Smithtown Library reopened on Thursday with safety precautions. Credit: John Roca

Long Island’s public libraries are reopening to visitors, changed by new safety protocols and often emptier than they were before the coronavirus pandemic. 

Librarians now greet the public from behind clear plastic sneeze guards erected at circulation and reference desks. Returned books and DVDs sit in quarantine for days. At about 15 recently opened libraries — dozens more are expected to open in coming weeks — visitors can browse the stacks or use public computers again, but they must wear masks to get into the building and are sometimes discouraged from lingering.

“We’re hoping we don’t have to live this way for too much longer,” said Ken Bellafiore, director of the Freeport Library, which imposed a one-hour time limit on visitors when it opened last month. The measure was a hedge against overcrowding a building effectively shrunk by the need to socially distance, and it is generous compared with some that library directors have imposed elsewhere. Like many libraries, Freeport also has removed some public seating and closed public meeting rooms or repurposed them as offices for socially distancing staff.

In Smithtown, Long Island’s largest library system , with four branches, officials spent $54,000 on plastic partitions and signage before reopening last Thursday. Janitors clean some areas as frequently as every 45 minutes and buildings will close every Wednesday for deeper cleaning. “We have come a long way,” said library director Robert Lusak. “God forbid there’s a setback.” 

Some libraries have opened to far fewer visitors than usual. Syosset, which averaged 900 to 1,000 visitors a day before the pandemic, is serving about 300 since its June 24 reopening, said director Christine Belling. 

Fewer visitors in the building does not necessarily mean less use, though. Curbside pickup and drop-off of library materials has proved so popular that Syosset and other libraries have kept the service after reopening.

Circulation numbers for Syosset’s digital collection more than doubled, year over year, in June, Belling said. Use of e-books, online periodicals, audiobooks and streaming content is soaring overall on Long Island, according to the directors of the two library systems that support 108 independent public libraries in Suffolk and Nassau counties. In Suffolk, 504,000 e-book titles circulated in April and May, a roughly 50% increase over the same period last year, said Kevin Verbesey, system director. In Nassau, since the start of the pandemic, residents have downloaded more than 585,000 e-books and audiobooks, according to system director Caroline Ashby. In those months the system registered 15,000 new e-book users and 6,000 new requests for library cards. 

Nassau’s Jericho Public Library, scheduled to reopen to visitors Monday, spent about $30,000 in June on online materials to keep pace with demand as circulation nearly doubled.

“We were very pleased to hear from people that they missed us,” said library director Christina Brenner. “By providing what they needed during those times, we did get the return” on that investment.

Some apps, free to library users, have turned into breakout hits in recent months. Pronunciator, a language learning app available from Nassau libraries, is getting almost double the use it did last year. Bayport-Blue Point patrons used a digital newsstand, PressReader, to open more than 1,600 articles in April, and Smithtown’s summer reading program, one of the largest on Long Island with more than 2,000 participants, is being conducted online with READsquared software. Book clubs, baking and Zumba classes have all moved online.

“We are still connected to patrons — we’re just doing it a different way,” said Mike Firestone, director of the Bayport-Blue Point library, which opened to visitors June 24. Story time for parents and children is now conducted over Zoom, he said. There will be no in-person programming until Long Island reaches Phase 4 and even then, he said, “we’re going to start with things outside.”

Most librarians said they believed people still wanted to come to their libraries, even if the pandemic made it harder and downloading was easier. “People still and will always crave the company of their friends and neighbors,” said Ashby, of the Nassau Library System, in an email. “You can learn in your home and even consult with library staff from home, but inside the library you're a part of your community.”

Minutes after Smithtown’s North Country Road branch opened last Thursday, Cal Gomberg, a retired communications worker, stopped by to borrow a volume on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II. Danielle Verdicchio dropped off two romance novels and said she was looking for more. “I missed you guys,” she said to the librarian who greeted her at the door.

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