Missing the students with whom he worked at Topsham Public Library before the pandemic, Dave Harmon has been building science and technology kits for youths to pick up at the facility. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

CUMBERLAND — Since Stacey Caulk and her family refer to Prince Memorial Library as “our other living room,” it’s little wonder the institution’s pandemic-caused closure in March left a significant void in their social and educational lives.

Caulk usually brought her sons, ages 3 and 9, to the library twice a week to romp around the play room and enjoy children’s activities and books while she connected with other parents. Prince offered curbside pickup and drop off soon after it closed, and the library is now open on a limited basis, requiring face coverings be worn, hands be sanitized, and limiting capacity at 35.

Caulk’s sons tune in online to the library’s story time, as well as a book club led by Youth Services Librarian Kelly Greenlee. In-person programming remains suspended.

The “grab and go” craft kits that Youth Services Librarian Kelly Greenlee has been making to set outside the Cumberland facility have proven popular, with all 80 gone in two days each week. Helping Greenlee is library staffer Madeline Grigg. Alex Lear / The Forecaster

Libraries such as Prince are clearly no longer just collections of books, and its many services are missed by patrons in need. Those without computers or internet  may use the library’s computer lab, where they can print documents, file for unemployment, apply for jobs and use Zoom video conferencing software, according to Assistant Director Elizabeth Manning.

“As technology has been revving up, and people have been out of school for a long time … the library has filled in that gap for them,” said Manning, who’s spent 20 years in libraries.

Client numbers for July and August ranged as of last week from 38-133. Tuesdays tend to be the peak day, given the library’s closure the two prior days. “Pre-pandemic we would have seen a couple hundred people, easily,” Manning said. These days, “you very much feel the loss of a daily connection with the people that come in.”

About 15 adults would attend in-person book groups before; half that number tune into online versions of the gatherings these days, Manning said.

“I think libraries are trying to figure out what our role is here, particularly (since) we’re a very school-centric community,” Manning said.

On the younger end of the spectrum, Greenlee could see 50 children and parents into a room, compared with about 20 connected via computer during the spring. Online numbers this summer have dwindled to a handful, which Greenlee credits to students being tired of staring at a screen and wanting to go outside.

“Kids are out doing things, and that’s great,” she said. “That’s what I want to see.”

On the other hand, the “grab and go” craft kits that Greenlee organizes each week show strong participation in a different capacity. It takes just two days for the 80 she sets outside the library to vanish.

“The parents have absolutely loved it, because their kids are occupied for an hour or two,” Greenlee said.

Topsham Public Library has meanwhile seen circulation of more than 12,000 last July shrink to less than 6,000 this July, according to Director Susan Preece. Conversely, audiobooks and downloadable audiobooks and e-books have risen in the past year, from 214 and 319 last year to 322 and 509, respectively, she said.

The library tracked an average number of 232 patrons in July 2019, versus 79 last month, Preece said. The lack of in-person programming this year impacts that number, she noted.

Many patrons have stopped by to check email, apply for jobs, or print resumes or cover letters; they’re not likely to talk with a reporter, Preece said.

“The reason they come here is that we don’t question them or make contact unless they choose to,” she said. “The people who need us the most are those least likely to ask for what they need.”

David Harmon of Topsham frequently brought both his grandchildren to the library pre-pandemic. Once it library closed, “we missed all the resources, but especially the children’s programs,” he said.

He has missed sharing his longtime hobby of building items with kids at the library, and he and his wife have as a result made STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) educational kits, such as rocket gliders and flextangles, for his pupils to pick up and work on at home.

“It doesn’t really take the place of watching kids learn how to do things … that’s the real joy, you love to watch them figure out that they can actually do things that are pretty cool,” Harmon said. “You can’t do that, but this is what we can do right now. So this is what we do.”

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