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'Hub of the community': Librarians make home visits to people isolated during COVID-19

Danielle Gehr
Ames Tribune

People had tears in their eyes as they entered the Bertha Bartlett Library for the first time in over a month, library director Kolleen Taylor said.

Libraries offer entertainment, internet and human connection to each community, but after the first COVID-19 cases appeared in Iowa, librarians needed to adapt to CDC guidelines while delivering resources when people needed them most.

They added curbside pickups and strenuous cleaning practices — even quarantining books. In Story City, Bertha Bartlett librarians made home visits to those they felt could be at risk.

Kolleen Taylor, librarian of Bertha Bartlett Library in Story City, Sanitizes returns books before going to the book·shelf at the library Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, in Story City, Iowa.

Some were requested by friends and family, but others were frequent visitors the librarians knew may need a wellness check.

"We were worried," Taylor said. "Since COVID started, we immediately became problem solvers. How do we serve our community? How do we help people that can't come and see us?

"It just felt like the community got isolated very quickly."

Joanie Jamison has worked at Colo Public Library for 30 years. She's watched people who frequented the library as children grow up to bring their own children around. 

Taylor said she grew up in a library. 

"Ever since the first grade, I thought being a librarian was one of the coolest jobs on Earth," Taylor said. "I changed my mind when I got into high school."

Eventually, Taylor made her way back to the library and has been with the Betha Barlett Library for the last 20 years. For both librarians, 2020 has been completely unique to their decades of experience. 

"My annual reports have been topsy turvy," Taylor said. "We started the year as one kind of a library and then had to shift gears to be a totally different type of library."

The Bertha Bartlett Library closed from March 17 to June 8, and Taylor could see the importance of their work in the community during and after this absence. People left letters in their dropbox, thanking them for their work. 

"I had one lady that sat down, wrote the longest letter thanking me for keeping them informed, and making them not feel so scared," Taylor said. "Because there were people sitting in total isolation."

Jamison found it difficult at the start of the pandemic to see a library normally filled with adults and children become empty, she said. The puppet theater, Legos and puzzles all sat unused while mitigating the coronavirus spread. 

Kolleen Taylor, the librarian, and Shelly Gruwell, program assistance of Bertha Bartlett Library in Story City, show a sign box for returns books before sanitized at the library Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, in Story City, Iowa.

"(The library) is a way for them to get out of the house and still do activities," Jamison said. "Unfortunately, we had to put all of that away. Now, when families come in they basically get what they want — get their movies or books or whatever — and immediately leave.

"They're still using the library but just in a different way."

People still stay in Colo's library to read their books or use other resources, but not as often or for nearly as long, Jamison said. For now, the library offers curbside pickup and saw downloads increase this year.

To continue loaning books and movies, the libraries needed to up their sanitation practices by stocking up on disinfectants. Taylor said they ran over 2,000 DVDs through a machine to clean them.

The Story City library also began quarantining books rather than ruining their pages with disinfectant.

On top of being a place for entertainment and connection, people without computers or printers rely on the library's resources. 

Shelly Gruwell, program assistance of Bertha Bartlett Library in Story City, sanitizes the computer room every time someone uses the room at the library Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, in Story City, Iowa.

Tax deadlines approached and some had no way of getting their forms. Others were in the middle of buying a house and needed documents printed. Librarians were able to use their wireless printing and bring the documents to their cars if needed.

Before, during and after a global pandemic, a library is part of the foundation of "a strong, vibrant community," Taylor said. Her grandfather chose where he would settle over 100 years ago based on if the town had a good library, she said. 

"We are the hub of the community," Jamison said. "If they want any information, they generally call here. We sponsor a lot of activities for the community throughout the year that if we didn't do it, I don't know who would."

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at dgehr@gannett.com, phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.