Friday, April 19, 2024

Many Cantabrigians have been missing their library – including library staff. (Photo: Martha Henry)

For many in Cambridge, books feel like one of the main food groups. When libraries and bookstores closed in March due to the Covid-19 lockdown, some of us felt starved. Fortunately, with lower virus rates, the city’s main purveyors of books are open again, though operations are anything but normal.

Doors closed

The Cambridge Public Library closed its main building on Broadway on March 14, along with all six branches. “The shutdown was very sudden,” said Jason Yee, manager of branch services. “We found out on a Friday that no one should report in the following day.”

Over the next weeks, library director Maria McCauley and senior staff worked remotely to strengthen and promote online services. Other staff members began gradually to work from home. “The majority, about 70 percent of staff, are unionized,” McCauley said. To date, no staff have been laid off or furloughed.

Digital offerings

In the initial phase of the shutdown, lots of people were stuck at home, looking for something to do. “We saw a great increase in e-book usage and other digital resources, including movies and other media resources,” McCauley said.

The children’s librarians learned how to use Zoom. “When we first started offering our online story time, people were ecstatic because the kids’ days and routines had already been so disrupted,” Yee said. Toddlers could see familiar librarians onscreen and sing along with songs they heard every week.

The “Your Next Great Read” recommendation program was created for readers of all ages. “As librarians, one of the things that we find really rewarding is connecting people with information or entertainment or books that we think they’d like,” Yee said. “Most of the time that happens in person, but since that wasn’t possible, we wanted to make a way to get that information out to patrons.”

To participate, patrons fill out an online form with questions about what kind of book they’re looking for and what they’ve liked in the past. Staff, working remotely, use their knowledge and online resource tools to offer three book recommendations, along with links to the digital catalog. According to Yee, Cambridge librarians have made more than 800 recommendations in the four months since the program launched.

Books back in circulation

Some people pick up 10 to 20 books at a time, library staff say.

“When people think of the library, they think of checking out materials, so getting physical books into the hands of people was high on our priority list,” Yee said. Librarians had to come up with a system that was safe for staff and the public, but that would also meet a high level of demand.

On June 16, the holds-pickup program kicked off at the main library on Broadway.

Patrons can request a book, either online or over the phone. Items are pulled and placed on hold. An email alerts readers that books are ready for pickup. Pickup appointments can be scheduled online. Patrons arrive at a table outside the front entrance of the library to collect books in a brown paper bag. Staff and patrons must wear masks.

Some people pick up 10 to 20 books at a time, Yee said. Up to 30 pickups are scheduled per hour, along with walkup service for those who don’t want to schedule an appointment.

“It’s a huge operation and takes a huge amount of space,” McCauley said. “Imagine, if you will, all the holds that are waiting to go out.” Inside the closed main library, the holds-pickup area is now spread across the entire ground floor so staff can maintain social distancing.

“For a two-month period, we have checked out 33,000 physical items,” McCauley said. “Eight thousand appointments have been picked up through the appointment system. In that same time period, we’ve had 62,000 physical items returned.” Out of an abundance of caution, returned books are quarantined for 96 hours before being handled.


Libraries in other towns have recently reopened on a limited basis. “We’re all watching carefully to see what happens with the virus because, of course, we want to be safe,” McCauley said. “Hopefully, sometime this fall, we’ll be open at least for some light browsing and checking out of materials.”

The main library would reopen first, followed by branches. “I know people love their branch libraries and they want them open,” McCauley said.

Yee, who often works out of the Central Square branch, also looks forward to reopening. “A lot of our clientele use the physical building as a resource, so climate control, safe and friendly faces, and computer and printing access are things that they don’t have the ability to get anywhere else,” he said. “I’m looking forward to being able to open up the building to the public the way it used to be – being a safe space for whoever walks in the door.”

For information on library services, programs and hours, look online at or call (617) 349-4040 or email [email protected].