PINE ISLAND — Need a book? Want to peruse the stacks for that just-right winter read?

Look no further than one of several small-town libraries around Rochester.

"We've had lots of positive feedback, lots of people coming in," said Rachel Gray, the director of the Pine Island Public Library.

Pine Island's library reopened the day after Labor Day, welcoming up to 10 people into the library at any time along with three employees.

Gray said reopening to the public has been difficult because the state of Minnesota hasn't offered much in the way of guidance.

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Rachel Gray, director of the Van Horne Public Library in Pine Island, Tuesday October 20, 2020. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Rachel Gray, director of the Van Horne Public Library in Pine Island, Tuesday October 20, 2020. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

In Pine Island, for example, the library began offering curbside service in May, not long after the statewide shutdown of businesses that cater to the public began. Through the summer, the library offered a host of online and virtual options such as summer reading and story time. It wasn't until shortly before Labor Day that they opened their doors on an appointment basis. And now, the library is open, although social distancing and masks are required, and anyone who wants to get in must first ring a doorbell and be let inside.

Sara Tiner, who walks to the library a couple of times a month with her 6-year-old son, Edgar Williams, said the curbside service meant they did not see much interruption in service.

"We missed taking our walk (to the library) like we usually do," Tiner said.

Edgar said they often check out e-books from Rochester's library, but if they want a physical book, they make the trip up the street to their library in Pine Island.

Edgar Williams, 6, looks through the bins of children’s books at the Van Horne Public Library in Pine Island Tuesday October 20, 2020. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Edgar Williams, 6, looks through the bins of children’s books at the Van Horne Public Library in Pine Island Tuesday October 20, 2020. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

While Pine Island's library opened to walk-in patrons last month, other libraries have worked differently.

The Rochester Public Library is only open for appointments to use the internet. The library remains mostly closed to the public and, due to a recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Olmsted County, plans to remain closed..

Gray said she sympathizes with the library director in Rochester, and acknowledges that the hurdles to reopening Rochester's library are very different from the ones she faced in a small town with a small library.

In fact, every library has charted its own path for reopening. The Stewartville Public Library opened June 8, said Library Director Nate Deprey. After opening to a curbside delivery model a few weeks after the shutdown order from the state, Stewartville reopened to in-person patrons about a month later.

"One of our biggest challenges was, unlike a lot of states, Minnesota provided no guidance on how libraries were supposed to reopen," Deprey said. "We had to come up with own plan. I looked at libraries in Wisconsin. Our curbside model was based on a pizzeria in River Falls (Wis.)."

Sara Tiner of Pine Island helps her son Edgar Williams check out his books at the Van Horne Public Library inPine Island Tuesday October 20, 2020. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)
Sara Tiner of Pine Island helps her son Edgar Williams check out his books at the Van Horne Public Library inPine Island Tuesday October 20, 2020. (Ken Klotzbach / kklotzbach@postbulletin.com)

Because of that, there's a lot of diversity in how and when libraries around the region have opened, he said.

In Pine Island, Gray said not seeing their regular patrons – like Tiner and her son – was the hardest part of being closed.

"These kids, I haven't seen them in four months, and suddenly they've grown a foot," she said with a laugh.

For Deprey, one of the hardest parts of reopening was keeping his staff safe. One of his five employees, he said, would be considered higher risk for COVID-19 exposure. That employee works mostly away from the public.

"The big risk for us, of course, is if I get COVID, nobody in this town gets books for a month," Deprey said. "Our staff would have to quarantine. So everyone on our staff takes this very seriously."

Despite the disruption caused by the shutdown, Deprey said there have been some positives from the experience. During the summer, Stewartville offered craft or science experiment take-home kits each Monday. Those kits got a much better response than a craft or experiment activity in the library would have received. Going forward, he plans to look at a hybrid of in-library and take-home models for some activities.

He added that curbside service has been such a popular option, he plans to keep it going into the future.

Gray agreed, although the request for curbside service has dropped as the library has reopened. In fact, in Pine Island the use of the library is almost back to normal.

"It's fairly close," Gray said. "I do have a couple of patrons who won't come in until everything is settled."