As Hackley Public Library reopens on June 15, a focus on connection in the age of pandemic

Hackley Public Library in downtown Muskegon. Photo by Anna Gustafson

In these past months, it was the emptiness that made Hackley Public Library Director Joe Zappacosta the most sad: the filled bookshelves with no one to peruse them, the lifeless computers, the quiet rooms that once overflowed with conversation.

“I had access to the library because I would do building checks, and it was really sad to see the library without people in it,” Zappacosta said. “We have such an awesome building, but the building isn’t alive until we see people in it.”

Now, after months of cultural institutions and businesses throughout Muskegon, and the state, being shuttered due to Covid-19, life is returning. On Monday, June 15, Hackley Public Library in downtown Muskegon begins its multi-phase reopening process—and Zappacosta can’t wait to see what their new normal will look like. 

And it will be a new normal—after all, Covid-19 has not disappeared. Which means the 129-year-old library cannot currently exist as it once was, filled with people. But, it does mean that the library is focusing on new ways to do what it has always done: connect. Connect us to books, to learning, to technology—and to other people.

“I think libraries in general will be something different from now on,” Zappacosta said. “For many people working at our library, they’ve been working here for many years and they’re doing things with technology they never imagined they’d be doing. We’re changing the way we do things.”

From adding a new WiFi access point outside of its building (which will allow the public to connect to high speed internet in Hackley Park) to offering curbside pickup, Hackley is tackling what it means to be a library in the age of coronavirus.

Hackley Public Library. Photo by Anna Gustafson

So, what should patrons expect when the library reopens at 10am on Monday, June 15?

First, they’ll be able to return items, both in the outside book drop or inside the library, which is located at 316 W. Webster Ave. in downtown Muskegon. There will be no fines for materials that were due during the library’s closure.

“We’re going to be all hands on deck while taking things in the first two days,” Zappacosta said. “I’m sure we have thousands of materials that have been checked out.”

Also, beginning on Monday, patrons will be able to use the library’s computers by appointment only. To make an appointment, call the library’s main line at 231-722-8009. People may also stop by the library to see if a computer is open or to make an appointment, but calling is recommended.

For anyone entering the library building, they’re asked to wear face masks—if someone doesn’t have one, the library will have disposable masks available.

For now, the library’s operating hours will be Monday through Saturday, 10am-2pm.

The interior of Hackley Public Library. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Wednesday, June 17: Lending and curbside pickup begins

For the first two days of the library being open, staff will solely focus on sorting the returned books and other items, the computer appointments and adjusting to the new schedule. Beginning Wednesday, June 17, patrons will be able to lend materials again. 

Individuals won’t be able to browse the library’s shelves, but they will be able to pick up items they placed on hold during the shutdown. (Side note: if you’re missing wandering around the library, you can explore its bookshelves with Zappacosta in this video filmed in April.) Individuals will be able to pick materials up by dropping by in person or by using Hackley’s new curbside delivery option. To use the curbside option, call the library (231-722-8000) and let them know you plan on coming to get your items. Once you’re at the library, call the main number again and a staff member will bring the materials to your car. 

When the library has worked through its held materials, patrons will be able to request items from the shelves. Again, while the public won’t be able to go to the library’s shelves themselves, they will be able to browse the library’s collection online and place materials on hold (click here to do so), as well as request items by calling 231-722-8000 or dropping by the library in person.

The second floor of Hackley Public Library. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Torrent House, youth services and programming

For now, the library’s local history and genealogy department, located in the Torrent House across from the library, will remain closed. (For local history buffs, you can explore the department’s online resources, including a collection of digitized photos, by clicking here.) Youth services and in-person programming will also remain closed, but free online programming will continue.

Once the library has reopened, Zappacosta said they’ll assess how things are going and potentially launch youth services and allow individuals to sit at tables inside the library.

“We’d like to phase those things in as soon as we can,” the director said, emphasizing that they’ll need to watch how Covid-19 is affecting the region to do so.

Regarding programming, Zappacosta said the library is “experimenting with the idea of doing some things outside and doing small group programs.”

And, he emphasized, free virtual programming continues, from online storytelling for children to financial workshops for adults. To see all of the virtual programming options, please click here.

‘It feels like I’m opening a new business’: Running a library in a global pandemic

Zappacosta knows all of this isn’t ideal, for patrons or staff, and he said, “it feels like I’m opening a new business” as he and his staff navigate this pandemic. 

“I know the business, and I’ve worked for a long time in it, but it still feels like it’s a new business that we’re opening,” he said. “There’s so much we have to play by ear.”

Hackley Public Library Director Joe Zappacosta. Courtesy photo

Part of that learning curve includes the library transitioning to a world that has shifted almost entirely online in the wake of Covid-19.

“We’ve been a destination library because the building is so beautiful—people just enjoy coming here to see it, and, for a while, people aren’t going to be able to come and just spend time here,” Zappacosta said. “It’s not going to be great for us. It will be transactional: you’ll come and get your items and leave, or come and use the computer and leave.”

And while the director and his staff have been working around the clock to make sure that process is as seamless as possible, as well as to engage with the public online through programming and other efforts, he knows people are “getting online experience burnout.”

“I don’t know how many people will want to keep doing story time by sitting on their computer,” Zappacosta said. “I think people are getting really tired of it. I know people want to be connected.”

Despite the limitations and frustrations, the director emphasized they are working hard to provide that connection in this new world of ours. And, Zappacosta noted, the library’s role in connectivity continues to increase, including by expanding the technology that’s available inside—and outside—of the cultural institution.

Library adds outdoors WiFi, brings high speed internet to Third Street and Hackley Park 

Throughout the shutdown, Zappacosta and his staff were routinely asked about computer access—could they, while everything was closed, provide much-needed computer access to individuals who do not have computers at home? It was something the library director said he wished they could have done—and which they asked the state to grant them permission to do. The state did not respond to their request.

Now, however, as they begin to reopen, the library is paying particular attention to technology access—they know many of their patrons do not have internet access at home; or, if they do, it’s through a phone and not a computer, which can make applying for something like unemployment benefits or a new job increasingly difficult. 

Hackley Public Library in downtown Muskegon. Photo by Anna Gustafson

That’s why Hackley is offering computer appointments as soon as they open on June 15—as well as why the library is adding a WiFi access point to the outside of its building. Bringing high speed internet to anyone who needs it, the WiFi access point is expected to be up and running this coming week. Anyone will be welcome to access the WiFi, which Zappacosta said will be available from Third Street next to the library to approximately half of Hackley Park.

“A lot [of the patrons] have spotty internet connection or just phone connectivity, which isn’t as easy to use,” Zappacosta said. “If you run out of phone minutes, you may not have money to buy more minutes. People are in this in-between area, and, with unemployment, there may be more people falling into that category. We want to get the word out that we’re a resource, a place to go.”

In addition to applying for unemployment, as well as new jobs, that ability to connect to the internet is crucial, particularly at a time when a global pandemic has severely restricted our ability to spend time with friends and family in person, the library director noted. After all, think about all those instances when you saw publicity about free food being given out in the community, about no-cost Covid-19 testing, or about meal giveaways for students and seniors. How did you access that information? It was likely because you were connected to the internet. What happens when the individuals who most need that information don’t have access to a computer or the internet? As the Covid-19 pandemic continues, it will be crucial, and even life-saving, for individuals to have access to the internet.

“A big part of computer use in a library is connectivity,” Zappacosta said. “People are connecting with family members living in other cities. And sometimes just having access to that connectivity creates opportunity.”

As Hackley reopens, setting sights on August’s millage 

As the library finds its way through this pandemic, it too is looking to Muskegon County’s Aug. 4 primary election. The Hackley Public Library property tax millage is up for renewal at that time, when the library is asking the public to back its request to renew its existing tax rate of 2.4 mills, or $2.40 per each $1,000 of taxable value, for 10 years. The millage renewal would not increase taxes for property owners; its passage would mean taxpayers would continue pay the same rate for the library millage as they currently do.

“It’s important,” Zappacosta said of the millage. “We get most of our funding through the property tax millage. Essentially, we can’t operate without it.”

Should the millage not pass in August, it would again be placed on the ballot for November’s general election.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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