Since shutting down two months ago, the Portland Public Library has made an effort to maintain connections virtually with patrons who rely on its services. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — The Portland Public Library is figuring out how and when to reopen in accordance with the governor’s reopening plan while working daily to maintain connections with patrons.

A re-opening date has not been set, although some public libraries may reopen in June, according to the Maine Library Association.

Closed since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Portland library, normally a cultural hub and often a social safety net in the city, is Maine’s oldest and largest, serves more than 675,000 individuals annually.

The ground floor of the Portland Public Library remains vacant nearly two months after libraries across Maine closed because of the threat of the coronavirus. Derek Davis / Staff Photographer

“While we can’t open our doors to provide exactly the same services we are known for, we are working diligently and creatively to still serve our patrons remotely,”  said Kristen Smith, the library’s director of development and external relations.

Jen Alvino, director of the Maine Library Association, said other libraries have pivoted to virtual services during the coronavirus pandemic.

“(It) is a different kind of connection with the community, but can be a personal one depending on how you do it,” Alvino said

While the library can lend electronic books, conduct book talks via Zoom and offer other programming over social media or YouTube, it has been a challenge to virtually offer some services, such as those provided by social worker in residence Michelle Lamm.

Among other work, Lamm helps pair homeless patrons and others in need with social services across the city.

A phone line now directs callers with those needs to Lamm, “though we recognize some of our most vulnerable patrons do not have the means to do that,” Smith said, adding the library has made their community partners, such as social service organizations in greater Portland, aware of that service.

Smith said Lamm has also been personally reaching out to check in on patrons and offer support.

The library staff also has been in “close contact with partners around the city to augment, complement and publicize community offerings,” Smith said.

“Our staff are spread out working remotely, so we are doing all we can to stay meaningfully connected, and we believe we will be stronger when we can re-open physically and resume the in-house functions that make the library unique and essential to the Portland community,” Smith said.

Alvino expects public libraries could begin reopening during the second phase of Gov. Janet Mills’ plan, which begins June 1. In that phase, gatherings may be increased to no more than 50 people.

The library must also grapple with getting material returned from patrons in a safe manner.

“Libraries across the country are grappling with the question of how safe it is to handle materials,” Smith told the Portland Press Herald for a March 5 article. “We have a backlog of materials waiting to get back into the collection. We’re eager to get it back into the library even before it is open to the public, but only when it is safe.”

How that is done may depend on the results of a study the Battelle Memorial Institute in Ohio is doing that examines how long strains of the coronavirus remain on 25 library items. Results are expected later this month.

 

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