Louise “Mrs. C.” Capizzo, youth services manager at Scarborough Public Library, sits in front of her computer recording a session of “Mrs. C’s Online Story Time.” The library has been uploading the series to YouTube since the library closed on March 15. Courtesy / Lucy Jackson Norvell

CAPE ELIZABETH —  On Wednesday morning, a palette of faces was visible on a computer screen via Zoom teleconferencing software, doubtless a familiar sight to millions who are forced to stay housebound due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But this was not a corporate meeting. It’s a coffee break, a daily occurrence provided and promoted by Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth – just one of a number of new and enhanced programs area libraries are offering to educate and enlighten, provide reading materials and sometimes just to connect neighbors.

Most libraries closed their doors in mid-March, along with other municipal buildings, but that hasn’t stopped patrons from interacting with library staff and each other. On Wednesday, a Forecaster reporter chatted with about nine other people, a typical morning attendance. All were Cape Elizabeth residents, many of whom had never met in person, but now visit for an hour every morning and have become fast friends, sharing recipes and even showing off stuffed animal collections. Peter Darling, who lives alone, said that he’s enjoyed the window it’s given him to the world.

“For me, it introduced me to people, ideas, and gets me away from (just) ‘me,'” he said.

Tod Abrahams, another regular, said while no one feels acutely lonely or isolated, everyone welcomes the connections they can make through the group during lockdowns.

“It’s been a way to see what people are experiencing,” he said.

Catherine Morrison, adult services manager at Scarborough Public Library, unpacking books returned to the library once it began offering curbside service June 1. Courtesy / Lucy Jackson Norvell

Rachel Davis, the library’s director, said the coffee break hour is one of several new offerings at the library that include wellness-focused online events run by local mental health professionals who offer guidance on topics such as treating anxiety and depression, or compassionate communication.

“It kind of just grew out of what the staff thought people would need,” Davis said.

Traditional library activities have found new life online, too. Lucy Norvell, coordinator of programming and communication at the Scarborough Public Library, said the library has always offered electronic books and audio books, but its collection has grown since the pandemic began, and people are taking advantage. There are also online courses teaching subjects ranging from business technology to creative skills. Norvell said the library is even offering access, by appointment only, to computers for patrons who don’t have internet access.

“Those online services of ours were always robust, but they’ve become even more so,” she said.

Even children’s story time has migrated online. The library’s two favorite storytellers, Louise “Mrs. C.” Capizzo and Connie Burns are offering regular online sessions where kids can watch them read on YouTube.

Kevin Davis, director of library services at the South Portland Public Library, said the library has boosted its wifi to allow parking lot access to anyone who wants it. He said his library has also produced online offerings, including story hours for kids and book discussion groups for adults.

“We’ve tried our best,” he said. “This is certainly uncharted territory for everyone.”

Like all libraries in the area, Davis said South Portland began offering curbside pickup service starting June 1. He said pickups are only available by appointments made online, which cuts down on the volume of patronage compared to ordinary in-person hours, but despite the restrictions, he said by June 3 “we were booked solid” with appointments for the next full week.

“It’s pretty much non-stop,” he said, and once the library loosens restrictions to allow patrons to call in orders, he expects it will get even busier.

While Norvell said she didn’t know how much of the newer online offerings would remain available in Scarborough after the lockdown officially ends, she said “it’s very likely” some would remain. Regardless, she said she knows some people really want to get back into the library itself.

“We do look forward to seeing our patrons in person,” she said.

Sean Murphy 780-9094

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