Aitkin librarian Mandie Krueger

Aitkin librarian Mandie Krueger sits in one of the newly reopened reading areas at Aitkin Public Library. The East Regional Central Library system, which includes Aitkin and McGregor, is starting to slowly offer more inside spaces and activities as the state reopens from the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, the Aitkin Public Library began allowing patrons to come inside and sit down to read, for up to an hour.

It’s a big step back toward normalcy as area libraries begin to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It will kind of feel like we’re a real library again,” said Mandie Krueger, branch librarian for Aitkin and McGregor. Since reopening, she said, “we hadn’t been allowed to have open seating for people to use in the library.”

While all other COVID-19 protocols will remain in place, this is just one more step forward to getting back to normal.

Last March, libraries across the country shut down due to the pandemic. Since reopening this past summer and fall, the library environment and services have been dramatically modified.

It’s not just about wearing a mask. At the Aitkin library, all returned items are quarantined for at least three days before they are even checked in. Sneeze guards have been placed on the service desks. Hand sanitizing stations are available at the entrance and throughout.

Children play areas and equipment are closed off. Only 15 people are permitted inside at a time, and groups can’t be larger than two individuals.

Following the recommendations from both the CDC and the Minnesota Department of Health, libraries are required to clean the building every day that it is open to the public.

“Aitkin Library was very fortunate with that, because the city contracts with a company to clean already,” said Krueger. “So we were able to open up our doors a lot quicker than some of the other libraries.”

In fact, the Aitkin Public Library has resumed its usual, pre-COVID-19 hours. The McGregor Public Library is still not back to normal hours.

Curbside pick-up is a new service, offered by most libraries, at least one day a week. A patron can pre-order books online or by calling the library, then call when they arrive at the library and a staff member will bring the books out to their car.

Krueger has not seen major shifts in genre trends during the pandemic. However, a lot of people turned to using e-books, available on the apps Overdrive and Libby.

All in-person programming such as storytime and book club meetings will remain online for now.

“It is harder to reach the community, because a lot of our communication lately has been online and virtual and not all of our patrons have the opportunity to do that,” Krueger said. “The hardest part is that we’ve lost touch with some of our regular patrons who aren’t as virtually connected as others.”

“Since we can’t do in-person programming, we had to do a lot of creative thinking,” said Krueger.

One of the more popular activities the library offers is “take-and-make” kits. These kits are simple take-home crafts typically made with paper plates, paper bags, or construction paper. This week it’s a ladybug craft featuring googly eyes.

 The projects are designed for preschoolers, Krueger said, “but if adults want to bring them home, I’m not going to judge, because I think they’re a lot of fun to do.”

Recently, the library launched its first take-and-make kit for adults. It features all the essentials needed for an at-home spa experience. Registration for that filled up within two days.

This winter, the East Central Regional Libraries (ECRL), the regional library system to which the Aitkin Public Library belongs, began using the online platform Beanstack, which allows students and book-lovers of all ages to log the books they read and track the time they spend reading.

ECRL now has a contract with Beanstack and will continue using the platform for a summer reading program.

The take-and-make kits and Beanstack are just some of the changes in library programming that will likely remain even after pandemic protocols are lifted.

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