Tracy Kampa

Well, that certainly accelerated quickly, didn’t it? I was home on Saturday afternoon when I received a message from our Library Director that the City was planning on closing the library and the arena for the foreseeable future. This, to me, was a necessary and welcomed step in doing our part to keep people safe. At that time, the best practices were to hold groups to 50 or fewer people. (As of this writing, that has decreased to 10 or fewer people.) Well, over the course of a year, your Grand Rapids Area Library averages slightly more than 50 people, per hour, through our doors. Of course, we had no idea what these people were bringing with them, and sharing with one another via keyboards, door handles, countertops, books, dvd cases, newspapers, and every other thing we share in our space.

The first order of business on Monday morning was to start calling people from around the state who had our meeting spaces booked, and probably hadn’t heard about our closure. Dion was on top of that, while I communicated with our teachers who regularly came to the library to inform them that we were already closed, and would have to postpone library visits scheduled for Monday and Tuesday. In addition, I could inform them, and you, if you haven’t heard, that for the duration of our closure, we will be checking in all materials fine-free. Our hope is that during all this at-home, together time, some wayward library books might be found. Just drop them off in our book drop, with our great thanks.

After several dozen calls, Dion came to me with an interesting observation. Many of the people she spoke to wondered about our personal fates during the library’s closure. Would we be applying for unemployment? Is there anything they can do for us? What kind people! The truth is, though, that we are continuing to work, just without the public! Most of the work of a library happens outside the view of the public which it serves, and that work needs to continue, so we are ready when the doors are unlocked.

Here’s a good example: every single book in the Children’s Department is vetted before purchase. I read at least three industry publications every month, and base a good deal of my purchasing from those reviews. Then I think about most of the titles individually, where do they fit in our collection? Will this title replace something else that is older and perhaps outdated? And then, the bottom line, is this a title that we can afford? Or is there something else already in our collection doing that job? That, though, is just the first step. When I decide to press send on the order, I can expect most titles to be in the library within a couple of days. Before they get here, I need to do a purchase order for each individual title, so those titles are in the computer, where patrons can place holds, and we can access the information when the books arrive. When the boxes get here, the books are then “received,” which means more computer work, and more budget implications. (Including writing a purchase order for the City of Grand Rapids to actually pay the bill.) Then the books come back to me, and I decide exactly where in our collection I think they should go. (Some non-fiction titles work better in picture books, for example.) Then the book is processed by Dion, meaning she gets it shelf-ready with labels, bar codes, stamps, and the stickers which are imperative to getting the book back in the correct place on the shelf. Finally, the book is sent to Michelle, our best-in-Minnesota cataloger, who makes sure that every entry is correct in our catalog. (She reads a whole different language, called “MARC.” If you’re interested, stop by after we are open again, and I’ll show you what a MARC record looks like! It’s a foreign language, certainly.) All of the above takes time, and a great deal of care and consideration.

New books, however, are a tiny part of my job. We also need to deal with the books already on our shelves. We need to regularly weed our collection, and remove the books that patrons are no longer checking out. We try to weed each of our many children’s collections at least once a year, and we look at everything that hasn’t been checked out in a year. That doesn’t mean that we necessarily remove it, but we need to understand why it’s not circulating. Sometimes it’s obvious…when you open the cover of a book and the first several pages are ripped out, or there is mold growing against the spine because it got wet and we didn’t know, well, there’s your answer. Then there’s another decision to be made: do we replace the title, thereby not being able to buy something else, or do we just withdraw that title and see if anybody misses it? Most non-circulating titles, however, are a mystery, and we just have to use an educated guess. Should we move this title to another area? Put it on display? Why isn’t it getting any circulation? Weeding is a labor-intensive job, one that often gets shoved to the side when patrons are here. But it is vital to keeping a collection relevant. We will be doing some intensive weeding in the near future!

We also interact, daily, with the pieces of our Smart Play Spot. Look! The tree needs painting again because our young patrons are crawling through the puppet theater window. And the animals need to be cleaned, and the veggies need to be washed. And then there’s programming! I am entering the busiest part of my year, getting ready for Summer Reading! I need to book programs, write contracts, schedule the meeting rooms, and work on getting it all together in a coherent document to send to our graphic arts guy at the Arrowhead Library System. And that probably should be done soon, so we have enough time to edit all documents, including our reading logs. I need to order our prize books! I also need to plan the Summer programs that we are producing in-house, including all of my Summer Book Times, our Friday Fun Day events, along with about a dozen others. And so much more.

My crystal ball is foggy when I ask when this “new normal” can return to our “old normal.” When our doors open, again, though, we will welcome you with sparkly clean, freshly painted, surfaces. The books that you have been waiting for will be in the proper place on the shelf or bin. (One of the challenges of our job is tiny people who pick a book out of a bin and then put it back…wherever. It is also one of the parts of this job that makes me giggle.) Our shelves will have been weeded, and, hopefully, we will have repaired most of the ripped pages. Summer Reading will be planned and prepared. Rest assured that we are working hard at the 80% of the library iceberg that is below the water, and will continue to do so as long as it is safe. (We are all working hard at maintaining clean surfaces and safe distances while we are in the building together. Thankfully, it’s a big building and, fully staffed, there are only 9 of us!) In the meantime, my wish for you is a calm mind and a good book. In the words of Alexander Hamilton to Aaron Burr, “I’ll see you on the other side of the war!”

P.S. We’ve had several people ask about curbside pick-up of books. We are looking into that possibility, but many questions need to be answered first. We just found out today that Covid-19 lasts up to three days on plastic…which is what is used to cover our books. That is just one hurdle. If we can develop a plan that can keep all of us safe, we’ll let you know. For the immediate future, though, we’ll have to keep the books in the library.


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