Leah Goggins | @leahisonline
People quarantine at home. Library books quarantine in a castle.
Behind the children’s section at the Tuscaloosa Public Library (TPL), a room called the Story Castle, once home to regular storytimes for children, is now the three-day resting place of the library’s returned items.
Three long tables, labeled with dates and piled high with books, span the room. When books are returned, they spend at least three days in the Story Castle, which is right next to the library’s outdoor return chute. The library’s convalescent home for books has been in operation since the library reopened in June 2020.
TPL initially reopened with only circulation services available and a maximum capacity of 20 patrons. Slowly, the library has been able to expand its offerings. The building no longer has capacity restrictions, and there are even a few tables around the floor for visitors to come inside and use the library’s Wi-Fi.
The adjacent Friends of the Library Bookstore reopened in September, though with limited hours and capacity. The dozens of cardboard boxes stowed under benches and shelves in the secondhand bookshop are proof that the store is still accepting donated books—and being sure to quarantine them first.
“This is one of the services that people really missed when it was closed,” said Vince Bellofatto, TPL director of public relations and communications. “They were clamoring about [the bookstore]… Even in bad weather, they have patrons who are waiting outside.”
The bookstore is now open Tuesday (11 a.m. – 3 p.m.), Friday (11 a.m. – 3 p.m.) and Saturday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) for customers, as well as on Wednesdays and Thursdays (2 p.m. – 5 p.m.) for donations.
Though TPL has returned to some in-person normalcy, the virtual side of the library still remains strong. In the few months they were closed, the library’s online resources, like e-books and streaming programming, became the only way to serve their typical patrons, and usage spiked.
“The increase, especially in March, April, May, June [of 2020], was between 16% and 50%,” Jennifer Estes, TPL circulation manager, said. “Because that’s all that was available at the time.”
To make the internet materials more accessible, TPL continues to offer an e-library card that allows new patrons to try out the library’s digital media without coming in to apply for a card in person.
Though pleased with the number of people they’ve seen gain interest in virtual library resources, library employees said they’re still trying to offer services to folks who aren’t comfortable with technology or being around people indoors. Patrons can still request curbside service at the main library by registering on the TPL website. Bellofatto said the library will continue to offer curbside pick-up as long as the community shows interest in the service.
The library’s summer reading program also went online last summer, and library officials plan to remain online this year. To supplement its virtual resources, the library has also expanded its programming for children to the outdoors. Haley Bryant, the library’s youth services manager, has been working with the Warner Transportation Museum to plan outdoor story times for the library’s preschool patrons. While weather has kept those story times from coming to fruition, Bryant is optimistic about drawing a crowd as the weather warms up.
Bryant is also a part of the team planning Tuscaloosa’s first-ever StoryWalk, a collaboration with the Tuscaloosa County Parks and Recreation Authority. For StoryWalk, TPL will place a chosen children’s book on podiums along the Riverwalk, allowing families to read as they walk along the river and take part in a themed activity.
Though StoryWalk seems perfectly timed to coincide with the pandemic-era focus on socializing outside, Bryant said the program has actually been in the works for around two years.
“We like partnering with parks, so that’s a fun way to bring exercise and literacy together,” Bryant said. “And with COVID… I think we’ve all realized how excited we are just to get outside.”
Aside from health-related pandemic concerns, the library also had to deal with some monetary adjustments at the top of the year. Mayor Walt Maddox recommended cutting the library budget by 28%, or around $400,000, in August. Before passing the budget, the Tuscaloosa City Council lowered that cut to 14%. Bellofatto said that all departments within the library adjusted their budgets to accommodate the change.
But the biggest change for the Tuscaloosa Public Library has been its lack of guests. There are no crowds of kids watching a storyteller with rapt attention, no college students cramming for finals in the corners. Just a sparse collection of masked-up regulars perusing the aisles.
“We miss seeing as many patrons as we used to,” Bellofatto said. “But the patrons who have come to the library and utilized our services… they’ve been phenomenal.”