The entire “Game of Thrones” series on DVD. Iconic Soundgarden albums. And oh yeah, literary classics like “Pride and Prejudice.” The Huntsville Madison County Public Library system is comprised of nearly 500,000 physical items. And that number doesn’t include digital resources, such as e-books.
Huntsville libraries will reopen June 15, with coronavirus safety measures in place. The system’s 12 branches were last open to the public on March 15.
While libraries may not be as hip as a streaming app, they play a huge role in making a community livable, says HMCPL director of public relations Melanie Thornton. “When families move here, one of the first places they seek is the library,” Thornton says.
After Huntsville’s libraries powered down mid-March, the system reconfigured. Initially most of the 135-person staff, including full- and part-time employees, worked from home. (Around 200 volunteers also help make the library system go.) From home, staff focused on tasks like renewing and issuing library cards via email, managing the collection, writing blog posts and recommendations, recording material for the library’s “storytime” program, etc. Some staff entered branches to conduct inventory and empty book drops.
HMCPL began offering curbside pickup for their items holds May 6. “The first three days of curbside, we checked out around 16,000 items,” Thornton says. “The service has been so well received that we are keeping it for the time being.”
Once items are available, curbside pickup at the library works quite similar to how it does form local restaurants. Except instead of burritos or burgers you’re picking up Dostoevsky or “Daredevil.” Upon arrival, cardholders call a number displayed outside the library, to let staff know they’re here. Then, a pandemic masked library staffer brings out held items in a bag, placing them on a table where that patron can collect them. More info, including hours by branch, is available at hmcpl.org/curbside.
During the pandemic, HMCPL sanitizes all materials after they’re returned. Items are also quarantined 24 hours between users, as per Center for Disease Control recommendations.
Coronavirus or not, the library’s hold system is a gloriously convenient way to check out materials. Via the HMCPL website or app, cardholders put a hold on items, ranging from a hit contemporary novel like “Where the Crawdads Sing” to a vintage TV series on DVD like “Cheers.” When items are available, the cardholder is notified via text or email. Although cardholders designate a particular branch for pickup, they can put a hold on items from any HMCPL branch.
“On average, about 11,219 items a month are placed on hold and checked out through our hold system,” Thornton says. “We recognized that not everyone was used to doing this so we created a video tutorial on how to place holds in our catalog. Most people prefer to browse the shelves unless they are looking for something specific.”
That desire to browse helped inform the library’s decision to ease back into being open, says HMCPL executive director Laurel Best. “After surveying nearly 2,500 of our patrons, we found the thing they missed the most about the library was browsing the shelves,” Best says. “Over the last several weeks, we have been working to secure personal protective equipment to be able to reopen safely. Our libraries are designed to be community spaces, so we had to strike a balance between who we are and this new normal of social distancing.”
The HMCPL doesn’t currently track total number of visitors, per se. But pre-pandemic on average about 173,000 items were circulated a month, according to Thornton. ” We have the highest circulation in the state of Alabama and far exceed Birmingham, Montgomery and Mobile,” Thornton says. The checkout limit for cardholders is currently 50 items. Madison is the system’s busiest branch.
Occupancy at reopened HMCPL branches will be limited, and that will vary by branch, and patrons are asked to limit visits to one hour or less. Patrons will also be asked to wear masks. Libraries will limit the number of their public computers in use to maintain six-feet social distancing. HMCPL’s Friends of the Library stores, where donated (and often awesome) books can be purchased for just a few bucks, will not yet resume operations or accepting book donations.
All HMCPL employees will be equipped with PPE (personal protective equipment), including plexiglass shields at customer service desks. Daily temperature checks will be conducted. And all employees will use hand sanitizers and practice frequent hand washing.
Library gathering spaces, on-site programs and meetings will remain closed for now. “Our final phase (of reopening) will include restarting programs at a later date,” Thornton says. “Our summer reading program is by far our largest and most impactful program and we are really disappointed to not have an in-person program this summer.” However, children can still participate in the program by visiting hmcpl.org/summer.
Also, each week the library is releasing two new “storytime” videos for children on the HMCPL YouTube channel, as well science and crafting program for kids. For adults, online book club meetings and computer classes are offered.
“Libraries have reinvented themselves over the last decade,” Thornton says, “especially in regard to its role in technology. One of the most important roles that we play in the community is closing the gap in digital literacy. We have a workforce development center that teaches people how to be competitive digitally in the job market. We have digital media specialists who teach social media literacy and how to spot misinformation on those platforms.” Collections have also been reshaped. For example, HMCPL now boasts an impressive array of graphic novels and comic books.
For now, two HMCPL branches will remain closed. Cavalry Hill due to building access restrictions and Bessie K. Russell Library while the new North Huntsville Library and surrounding park are built. The latter projected is targeted for fall completion. Until the Cavalry Hill library reopens, HMCPL’s BookMobile is visiting the branch Tuesday 2:30 - 4:30 p.m. so children can obtain summer reading materials.
HMCPL acquires an average of 3,425 new titles a month. The library put purchasing physical items on hold for March and April and began ordering again in May. Recent technological editions include Hoopla Digital, a service that allows patrons to instantly borrow movies, music, audiobooks, TV shows, comics, etc. Titles can be streamed immediately or downloaded to phones or tablets for offline access later. More info at hoopladigital.com.
When Huntsville libraries shutdown March 16, they also stopped charging fines for overdue items. The library will reinstate fine accruals July 6. In addition to fines, HMCPL is funded through multiple local governments, Alabama Public Library Service, the nonprofit Huntsville Library Foundation and Friends of the Library sales. “We are also supported through allocations by our state representatives for the district which the library may be located,” Thornton says.
Speaking of money, for individuals or families facing pandemic rearranged finances, the HMCPL is a free alternative to video streaming services. More than once, I’ve found movies on DVD in the Huntsville system that weren’t available on Netflix or other streaming services at that time. And my HMCPL card is also how I got to read some of the hottest recent rock books, including memoirs by Debbie Harry and Prince, and Questlove’s “Mixtape Potluck” cookbook. “The demand for library services are only increasing,” Thornton says.
Pre-pandemic, a spoken word poetry jam session was one of the last events the library held. “Libraries are gathering spaces,” Thornton says. “You can watch a movie, listen to a live performance, learn how to decorate a cake, meetup with friends. We can’t wait to restart our programs and events safely again.”