Daniel Zhao

Every day, around 400 to 500 books are dropped off across the five branches of the New Haven Free Public Libraries. The books, freshly read, are wiped down with alcohol wipes and placed in a room to quarantine for seven days. They exit into a new world — germ-free and anxious to be read. 

The New Haven Free Public Libraries have operated largely online since March, but the five branches recently took small steps towards reopening in-person service. On July 6, branches began using curbside pickup to allow people to check out books, movies and other items. At the Ives Main Library in downtown New Haven, patrons can now reserve a time to use a computer, and the front lawn of the Fair Haven Library hosts a weekly produce market run by Gather New Haven. In addition to the few in-person services, the NHFPL also hosts a wide variety of online programs over Facebook Live and Zoom. 

Although the libraries operate very differently now than they have in the past, Kirk Morrison, branch manager of Fair Haven Library, said their fundamental purpose hasn’t changed. “The mission is the same,” Morrison said. “We’re a hub; one of those places that keeps communities glued together.”

Still, operating within the confines of the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging. In addition to small logistical issues with new initiatives, library staff worry primarily about the communities they serve, especially those who rely on the libraries for internet, child care or shelter from harsh weather. 

Library staff returned to in-person work in mid-June with new social distancing and hygiene procedures in place. “We were just happy to get back in the building because we’re a very close staff,” said Diane Brown, branch manager of Stetson Library. “Everybody was mentally and emotionally drained going through COVID and just for us to come to work every day and be in the presence and near one another … it just felt good.”

To ensure that kids doing online school have access to the Internet, the NHFPL are offering free wifi hotspots for rental. The Wilson Library also reconfigured their lobby to create space for a laptop, where community members can come in for 15-minute intervals and use the Internet. At the Stetson Branch on Dixwell Avenue, Brown is looking to start a program with the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology that would have around ten New Haven students spend the day at the library and do their virtual school work from there, so that their parents could go to work. 

The NHFPL online programs over Zoom and Facebook Live cover topics from candle making to business strategy to artist talks. One of the most popular programs has been the childrens’ storytimes, which staff adapted from their old in-person programs. The storytimes — where a librarian reads a story targeted to young children — are streamed over Facebook Live and each session garners around 70 views. 

“There’s nothing like that little connection point,” said New Haven resident Giulia Gambale, of the wide array of online programs. “Very rarely do I see or could I even name another library system that does the same thing.” 

With the much wider available audience afforded by online programs, multiple branch managers said they would consider retaining some online programs, even if and when the libraries do fully reopen.

“We are pretty much in the human potential business,” said Luis Chavez-Brumell, Branch Manager of Wilson Library. “Our goal is to allow people to be the best versions of themselves … it’s important for the community to remember the public library.”

The Ives Main Library is located on 133 Elm St.

Meg Buzbee | meg.buzbee@yale.edu

Correction, Sept. 18: A previous version of this article stated that 10 to 15 books were dropped off at each of the NFPL library branches each day. In fact, there are 400 to 500 books dropped off across all five branches each day.