Coral McDonnell couldn't get through when she first called the Duluth Public Library to request a book through its new curbside checkout service a few weeks ago. But she persisted, and on Friday morning, McDonnell used the service for the second time, picking up a copy of "10% Happier" by ABC correspondent Dan Harris.
She pulled up to the Michigan Street side of the building, and a library worker noted the vehicle, retrieved McDonnell's requested book, which had been placed in a paper bag, and set it on a chair positioned in the middle of the sidewalk, all the while wearing a mask and gloves.
After producing her library card and reading off a few digits, McDonnell got out of her car and walked to the chair to retrieve the book as the library staff person walked away.
McDonnell said she and her husband were "regular library people" and have missed being able to visit the library to peruse its collection and pick out books, since public health concerns forced it to close.
"This really helps," she said.
Byron Johnson, the library's head of circulation, said that in the three weeks since the launch of the curbside service, more than 1,000 different patrons have checked out materials without ever setting foot inside the building. The library is now handling about 60 curbside deliveries per day.
Library Services Manager Carla Powers said figuring out how to handle the demand has been a challenge.
"The first and second weeks were incredibly busy, because we were working through the backlog of items that had been placed on hold over the many weeks that we'd been closed," she said.
"We have people call in when they get an email saying that their hold is available and talk to a staff person to have the items checked out right on the spot and to set up an appointment for pickup. But our phones got overwhelmed those first few days with incoming calls. We couldn't keep up with them," Powers said.
Johnson said the library has had to "reinvent" itself because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Libraries were not set up to be call centers," he said. But staff has ably adjusted operations to deliver services in a new fashion. Johnson said the library was fortunate to retain the services of technicians for the first two weeks of the initiative, although all 25 now have joined the ranks of other city staff recently laid off due to budget constraints.
Powers said the library now is running with a crew of 23 people.
When requests for materials are made via phone or online, library staff check their local collection to see if the title is available on site or at one of the two other branch libraries. The requested materials are then grouped, labeled and staged on tables that have been set up in the lobby of the now-shuttered main library.
At present, the Duluth library is allowing people to check items out, but it's not accepting returns.
"We do know that people want to return items really badly, and that will be the next phase of the process," Powers said. "We're trying to figure out the best way to accept returns in a slow trickle, rather than in a tsunami, because right now we have about 60,000 items checked out."
The library has done away with fines, so that's not driving the desire to return items. But after having checked out items in their hands for many weeks, Powers said many library patrons are eager to return them.
"Especially with our staffing as it is, we need to keep some control, so we don't get completely overwhelmed," she said.
At first, library staff were hesitant to accept returns during a time of pandemic out of concern that it could serve to spread the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
"There have been some studies that show it lives for a very short period of time on cardboard and paper — 24 hours — but it can live longer on plastic," Powers said. "Libraries that are accepting returns right now are tending to quarantine things for about three days to make sure that the virus is not alive any more on any materials that are returned. So, that's what we're looking at as we think about how to accept returns."
Due to the lack of returns, there are long wait times for many in-demand popular items, but Powers said the library's shelves are far from bare. Some patrons have been turning to staff for recommendations.
"That's one of the favorite parts of our job, I would say, as librarians, is helping people figure out what to read next. That's something we're happy to do, and it's a way to maybe share some gem that the patron had never read before," she said.
Johnson said many people have been holed up in their houses and seem eager to talk to library staff about books and other matters.
"You can tell people are starved for human interaction," he said.
"I was just thrilled when they started to offer this," said Cyndy Klinksiek as she picked up a copy of "Gratitude" by Oliver Sacks on Friday morning. "Living in a community without a library is not the same."
To view the Duluth Public Library's collection and request materials for curbside pickup, visit duluthlibrary.org/curbside-pickup
To make a request by phone or to ask library staff for suggestions, call 218-730-4200 Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and noon or from 1-4 p.m. Pickups can be scheduled in that same time frame.