Mandel Learns People Really Do Love The Library

Mandel learns people really do love the library - Palm Beach Post, The (FL) - September 27, 2020 - page 1B September 27, 2020 | Palm Beach Post, The (FL) | Tony Doris, Palm Beach Post USA TODAY NETWORK | Page 1B

The city's biggest attraction, the downtown library, has reopened its doors to book borrowers, résumé writers, homework helpers and hungry schoolchildren, after six months of virtual programming and a city budget crisis that nearly cost it two dozen employees.

Mandel Public Library, which has drawn as many as 700,000 visitors a year, won't top that in 2020, after losing six months from March 20 to Sept. 14, due to the pandemic. But Director Lisa Hathaway said that record numbers poured into the newly COVID-conscious building at 411 Clematis St. in the first eight days since it reopened.

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Reese, Tucker and Beckett Morris with their owl pellet dissection grab-and-go kit. [COURTESY OF MANDEL PUBLIC LIBRARY]

The hours are slightly shorter than before: It's open Mondays through Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays, 1 to 5 p.m. The early closing leaves staff time to undertake a major cleaning of bathrooms, information desks, computers and other "major touch points," Hathaway said Wednesday. Visitors to the West Palm Beach institution will find newly erected Plexiglas partitions, hand sanitizer dispensers, and plastic keyboard covers for public computers. Mask-wearing is required and if you forgot yours, they'll give you one. They've ordered thousands.

More than a library

Since moving from its old waterfront quarters in 2009, the library has served not just as a place for borrowing from its collection of 210,000 paper and e-books, audio and digital offerings, but for everything from using computers to writing résumés, taking yoga classes on the library's YouTube channel, or baby yoga, tai chi, hip hop for kids, or talks on current events.

Kids trundle in for homework help and sometimes for their only meal of the day for thousands of them, especially when schools and their free-lunch programs are closed. Adults use its airy expanse as an air-conditioned refuge for the weary of mind and soul, amid the bustle of downtown.

When the doors closed in March, library staffers transformed themselves into virtual techs, to put major programs online.

"We realized we had to put the majority of our services online, so staff learned to become video producers, do closed captioning, green screens, things like that - things we had not done as librarians that they are now good at."

The popular homework help program was among those that went online.

Pre-COVID, the library had afterschool homework centers, with two certified teachers. Kids would come after school for free.

"A lot of kids formed deep bonds with their teachers and would be here two to three times a week," Hathaway said. "So when school started online after spring break, we realized we had to, as well. We did that in summer, too, when we would normally have enrichment classes for children and teens to help them get ready."

Students get help

In Google Meet classrooms, teachers worked with elementary, middle school and high school students on reading and math. Grants and money raised by the West Palm Beach Library Foundation paid for the service.

Programs to help job seekers went virtual, as well.

Library patrons now could call in to a career counselor and she would help with résumés, emailing back and forth. The library's Get That Job program, a monthly event supported by Wells Fargo and the foundation, also went from face-to-face to online when the building closed, for advice about resumes, interviewing and follow-up calls.

Lectures on the arts and history continued online, as did art classes. For some classes, staffers prepared kits with art supplies to pick up and use with the online classes. There's also a Millennials Ruin Book Club, where no books are assigned but there's a theme and the discussion includes books that relate to it.

The library also put Dungeons and Dragons and board game programs online for patrons. "We're starting to think more outside the box than in the past," Hathaway said.

The staff also created grab-and-go kits for kids, with paints to go along with books they would read, and with seeds for gardening classes.

Not back yet, but when things get back up to speed: Dog Tales. That's a program where dogs are brought in and kids read to them, to improve reading skills with the help of a furry, uncritical audience.

While orchestrating online programming, staff also found time to inventory the library's collection and to distribute library cards so that, even when the building was closed, residents could check out e-books and downloadable music and movies. The library saw an increase of more than 50 percent in digital checkouts during the six months it was closed.

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Lisa Hathaway became director of West Palm Beach’s Mandel Public Library in June, after longtime director Chris Murray retired. She oversaw conversion of many programs to online offerings while the library closed because of the pandemic. [COURTESY OF MANDEL PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Pent-up demand

The opening released pent-up demand for all the library offerings. In the eight days since it reopened, Hathaway said, more than 5,000 digital items were checked out, an increase of 56 percent over the same period last year.

The library saw more than 2,400 physical books checked out in the eight days since reopening. Eight-hundred people visited during that period.

As popular as the Mandel has been, city budget-cutters trying to compensate for pandemic-related revenue decreases targeted the library staff for layoffs. An early version of the Fiscal Year 2021 general fund budget called for 12.5 full-time positions and 12 part-timers to go.

But library fans poured into City Hall - or at least into a virtual City Commission meeting via Zoom - to protest. Their voices were heard. Instead, the library will lose seven part-timers and the position of a 37-year employee who retired will go unfilled, as will the assistant director position that Hathaway held until longtime Library Director Christopher Murray retired in June and Hathaway moved up.

The library now will have 35.5 full-time staffers to service four floors, seven days a week.

With the doors back open, library patrons, many of them regulars, have been saying hello to staff members and telling them how grateful they are to be back, to browse the stacks and use the computers, and they're grateful for all the safety precautions, Hathaway said.

The librarians, in turn, are grateful for the support residents showed them during budget hearings, she said.

"Libraries don't always come across as these grand institutions of communities. All of a sudden we felt, they do appreciate what we do. It was heartwarming." This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. @TonyDorisPBP

Copyright (c) 2020 Palm Beach Newspapers, Inc.

Mandel learns people really do love the library - Palm Beach Post, The (FL) - September 27, 2020 - page 1B September 27, 2020 | Palm Beach Post, The (FL) | Tony Doris, Palm Beach Post USA TODAY NETWORK | Page 1B