PUBLISHED JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2021
interview by Robert Broder, Editor & Founder, Ripple Grove Press —
IBPA Board of Directors member Rob Broder sat down with the president of the Vermont Library Association to discuss what has been going on during the pandemic and how it has affected libraries in the state.
In addition to being an IBPA board member and publisher of Ripple Grove Press, I work part time at my hometown public library, Pierson Library in Shelburne, Vermont. I sat down with Kevin Unrath, director of the library and president of the Vermont Library Association, to see what has been going on during the pandemic and how it has affected libraries in the state.
How has the pandemic changed the dynamic of the library?
Kevin Unrath: Our library opened up a brand-new facility about six months before the pandemic hit, so we were very busy with new customers, programs, and services. It was heartbreaking to shut down the excitement and close the doors. However, because we had a good amount of space, new ventilation, and we’re in Vermont (with some of the lowest rates of COVID-19 spread), we were able to reopen after only a month and a half being closed—first with curbside, then with limited browsing, and now with expanded browsing and in-library use time.
We’re still running more of a “shop-and-go” model, though, with most soft furnishings removed and study/reading spaces limited to an hour in order to limit exposure to staff and other customers. The sneeze guard barriers and social distancing means a less personalized approach by staff, but customers are just happy to have a safe, familiar place to come during these strange times.
Are you still having book clubs?
Unrath: We are still hosting our book and cookbook clubs, and attendance has stayed at 80-90% of pre-pandemic. We went online initially and now are offering hybrid with socially distanced in-person participation and a big screen for online participants. I think members of these groups long for social interaction, which has been severely curtailed because of COVID-19; seeing familiar faces and talking with friends is such a treat for people that enthusiasm is really high.
Has the budget of the library been hindered during the pandemic?
Unrath: We took a 5% hit to our budget and are looking at a flat budget next year, so it’s not great, but it’s not a drastic reduction either. During difficult economic times, libraries usually see more use, so the challenge is serving more customers with the same amount of or less money. We saw this during the recession 10 years ago and expect the same for the next couple of years. A federal COVID-19 relief bill that includes funding for state and local governments would be a real help in this area.
Do you offer curbside pickup on books? Has it been well received?
Unrath: We do, and when it was the only way we could deliver books, it was very popular! Now that we are offering in-person browsing, it is still used by busy parents or by those who are at higher risk for complications from COVID-19 (the elderly and immunocompromised), but it’s maybe 10% of our business, if that. Still, we’re happy to do it and might continue even after we’re back to normal.
Is the library offering any programming for adults and kids?
Pierson Library has removed most soft furnishings and study/reading spaces are limited to an hour to limit exposure to staff and other customers.
Unrath: In addition to the book clubs mentioned earlier, we’ve offered virtual story times for kids and, more recently, in-person story times outside on the town green. Both have been moderately successful, drawing a dozen or so participants on average. We’ve had to take and make crafts for families to do together online, and that’s been a hit. We’ve also started back with socially distanced game clubs for teens.
Since you’re also the director of Vermont libraries, how have the majority of towns been handling the circulation during the pandemic?
Unrath: It’s a real mixed bag. Some libraries are smaller and older and have fewer staff, especially the very rural ones. About two-thirds of libraries are open to the public now for browsing in some capacity; the others are still doing curbside pickup. Very few are holding in-person programs. Most are still doing programming virtually.
Have rural libraries in the state been affected?
Unrath: In addition to the comments above, one way rural libraries have continued to serve patrons is to keep their Wi-Fi on 24/7, with many boosting their Wi-Fi signals thanks to a grant from the Vermont Department of Libraries. There are still tens of thousands of households in Vermont without reliable internet, and libraries have helped kids continue their schooling and parents work remotely by offering this “digital lifeline.”
Do you have to quarantine books when they come back into the library?
Unrath: Yes, for three days, after which we reshelf them or put them on the hold shelf for patron requests. This is a standard set after looking at research from the OCLC/Battelle Labs REALM project, which has been testing various library materials and how long COVID-19 can remain viable on their surfaces.
Has ordering books changed?
Unrath: Other than the budgetary impacts, not really. We’re still ordering and cataloging, but we have 5% less to spend!
How can small independent press get their books recognized and ordered with public libraries?
Unrath: We tend to go with book requests, book reviews, bestsellers, and already known authors.
We have a difficult time finding small press catalogs. They need to reach out to us individually.
It’s difficult to order and catalog self-published books. But we do look to see if the book is edited well, has an interesting topic, and fits our patrons’ needs. It helps if books can be found with Baker & Taylor or Ingram.
Where do you go to order new books for the library?
Unrath: We order from both Amazon and Baker & Taylor, as well as our local bookstore (woohoo Flying Pig Books!). In fact, during the spring months, we shifted our ordering exclusively to Flying Pig in order to keep our money local. It was more expensive than ordering from Baker & Taylor, but we felt it was important to show this support with taxpayer dollars. We also spent a large, one-time buy for e-books through OverDrive after seeing a great jump in demand from people wanting to read library books but didn’t want to leave their homes. For the first time ever, we’ll surpass 10,000 e-books read by our patrons this year, whereas we weren’t even at 5,000 two years ago.
Are online e-book downloads up since the pandemic?
Yes, they are up 50% versus the same time last year, and show no sign of letting up.
Robert Broder is an IBPA Board member and publisher of Ripple Grove Press. He is also a member of the IBPA Independent Editorial Advisory Committee.