From curbside pickup to livestreamed children’s story times, local librarians searched for ways to reinvent their offerings after the rise of COVID-19 made the traditional in-person library experience impossible.

Now, nearly three years after the pandemic’s arrival, library visits and circulation numbers are beginning to rebound, according to library directors. Rather than hoping for a return to the past, librarians say they’re looking for new ways to engage communities transformed during the past three years.

“We are returning, but also, it’s an evolution,” said Freeport Community Library Director Courtney Sparks. “We’re watching: Are we still rebounding from some really hard years or are our needs changing?”

Many former patrons still haven’t come back after the early days of the pandemic forced libraries to close their doors and cancel programming.

Topsham Public Library saw an average of 250 visitors each day in the year before COVID’s arrival, according to Director Susan Preece. Even after rebounding significantly from the lows of 2020, daily visits still only sit at about 158.

Liz Doucett, executive director of Curtis Memorial Library, reported a similar trend in Brunswick, which she attributed to lingering fears of infection among patrons of all ages.


“I think we’re still bouncing back, to be honest,” she said. “I don’t think it’s a post-COVID world in a public library.”

In-person programming participation remains down in most local libraries as a result, but adaptations have allowed the organizations to continue serving residents in new ways.

Curtis Memorial Library’s self-service offering — created so guests could reserve and check-out books with minimal risk of COVID exposure — has remained popular for its speed and convenience, even as people have become more comfortable gathering in person, Doucett said. Many other patrons now mainly borrow electronic offerings like e-books, audiobooks and movies, a trend that has kept circulation numbers high even while visits lag.

Yet while some have elected to cut down on their time in physical libraries, others have turned to them as a welcome alternative to remote work at home, said Lesley Dolinger, executive director of Patten Free Library in Bath.

“We do have a lot of people that come and use our community room and our group study room,” she said. “I’ve really seen an uptick in people coming in and staying for a while.”

Librarians have had to work to identify these patterns and other changes in use, such as a decrease in public computer use and an increase in tech-related questions, Sparks said. But she added the challenge was a typical one for libraries, which are always adapting to better serve their communities.

“During hard times, people continue coming to the library,” said Sparks, who entered the industry in 2008 amidst fears that a shaky economy and the rise of e-books would prove to be existential threats. “Sometimes in different ways — they have different needs — but they don’t stop coming.”

Local libraries have recently tested a number of ideas, from grab-and-go kids’ crafts projects in Freeport to livestreamed history talks at Patten to “concierge” services in Topsham, where librarians will select books for guests based on their tastes. Even if 2023 proves to be the year patrons return in earnest, directors say they will keep searching for new ways to improve the library experience.

“I’m hoping that people will come back in and see what’s going on and ask for what they want,” Preece said. “We will respond.”

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