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Rochester Public Library still busy despite pandemic

The library and its staff have adapted to life during the pandemic but are still busy helping patrons.

Rochester Public Library Communications Director Karen Lemke answers phone calls from those waiting for curbside pickup in a make-shift call center on Saturday, July 25, 2020, at the library in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
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In many ways, it's business as usual at the library — staff are shelving books, and patrons are eagerly waiting for the day to begin.

But instead of waiting in the library's entryway, there's a line of cars around the corner, staff are wearing masks, and each reader's order is waiting to be hand-delivered. It's been months since the library opened its curbside pickup operation, and if this were a book, they’d finally be getting to the good part. After ironing out a few kinks, staff have gotten the curbside service down.

On Saturday morning, 40 minutes before curbside pickup was set to open, a handful of library staff were busy inside preparing for the day ahead. In one backroom, carts of quarantined books were waiting for their 72-hour hold to expire so an employee could put them back on the shelf.

Out on the main library floor, employees worked to empty carts and carts of books onto hold shelves that had been constructed after the pandemic started.


A taped off area holds returned books that are required a 72-hour quarantine before being re-shelved on Saturday, July 25, 2020, at the Rochester Public Library. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

With 30 minutes until the clock hit 10 a.m. and curbside pickup opened, three cars were already waiting. As the minutes ticked closer to opening, library assistant Ameyo Campbell grabbed the curbside signs and headed outside to place them in the appropriate spots.

Inside, staff turned on the phones and prepared for calls to come in.

Seated at one of the three computers set up for the occasion, Lynn Pentek, who works in circulation, answered her first call of the day.

“Rochester Public Library, this is curbside pickup. Which number spot are you parked in?” she asked.

After taking down the necessary information, Pentek got up from her seat to look for the patron’s requested items before placing them into a bag and handing them off to the runner who would deliver them to the waiting car.

A line of cars wait for curbside pickup as Claire Heins starts to bring out orders shortly after opening along 1st Avenue SE on Saturday, July 25, 2020, at the Rochester Public Library. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)


When orders are filled and spots open, it’s a cacophony of ringing phones as the next three patrons place their calls.

“It feels very, very good to have some kind of contact with patrons again,” Pentek said.

Campbell felt the same way.

“I miss my patrons,” she said, adding that working as line manager for the curbside pickup allows her to see some of the people she hasn’t seen in a long time. “It makes my day better.”

Ameyo Campbell waves to library guests as she sets up signs to begin curbside pickup on Saturday, July 25, 2020, at the library in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

More than reading materials

As the pandemic arrived in Rochester and city and county officials began ramping up to respond to COVID-19, library staff stepped up.

Just as before, they continue to help people access information and resources, but the delivery of those devices has changed, Karen Lemke, head of marketing and community engagement for the library, wrote in an email.


“At the heart of what RPL teammates do is serving the community and that service and dedication to helping hasn’t changed,” she wrote.

Lemke said Saturday that during a typical month before the pandemic, the library had about 20,000 books that were put on hold. Now, that number is closer to 31,000, she said.

In June, the bookmobile was back on the streets offering pickup of held materials and Wi-Fi access to patrons. An additional van accompanies the bookmobile to keep returned books separate from those waiting to be picked up by patrons, according to Lemke.

That same month, the library began offering internet service to patrons by appointment. A makeshift computer lab was moved into the library’s auditorium to allow for adequate spacing between patrons.

Beyond the library walls, library staff work the city’s Day Center operation, and they answer calls for the COVID-19 Information Hotline.

“Like the rest of the community (and the nation, world for that matter), we miss the ‘normal’ days: packed Storytime events, the packed lobby before our doors opened, the groups studying together,” Lemke wrote. “There’s no doubt we miss our patrons and we look forward to a time when things return to normal.”

A sign reading “We love you librarians” hangs on the wall in a make-shift call center for curbside pickup on Saturday, July 25, 2020, at the library in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Earlier this month, Library Director Audrey Betcher told the Library Board plans for reopening remain in the works.

"There's a lot of conversation about how we do it safely," she said, adding that the plan needs to ensure patrons can maintain safe physical distances.

"It's one thing if someone walks in and checks out a book using the self-check and walks out the door, but that's not how everyone uses the library," she said.

No date for an opening has been set, but Betcher said the library is likely to require appointments for access with a limited number of people in the building at a time, along with steps to ensure the patrons allowed in the building are not going to bunch up in a single area.

"We will be communicating as the plans develop, but it's getting closer," she said.

Emily Cutts is the Post Bulletin's public safety reporter. She joined the Post Bulletin in July 2018 after stints in Vermont and Western Massachusetts.
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