The three-branch ImagineIF Libraries system has more than 30,000 cardholders in the Flathead Valley but has only seen a fraction of them over the last year.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, roughly 1,000 patrons passed through the doors of the Bigfork, Columbia Falls and Kalispell branches every day. Over the last year, that number dropped to around 400, according to ImagineIF Libraries Director Connie Behe. Now, the system is preparing to welcome everyone back.
“The library’s mission is to provide a reasonably safe environment for patrons and staff in order to provide fair and equal access to information,” Behe said after a press release announced that ImagineIF would return to full hours in May. “I believe we can do that now.”
The library system shut down completely at the start of the pandemic, before opening with limited hours on May 19 of last year. In January, hours were expanded to accommodate more patrons at all the locations, and on April 19 more restrictions were eased, including lifting the 30-minute time limit for library visits, extending computer times and returning furniture to public areas.
“During COVID, as the director I had to make sure the facilities stayed open and provided a reasonably safe environment, while building in contingencies to the reopening plan,” Behe said, mentioning that she called pharmacies daily to see if there were any leftover vaccine doses available that her staff could use. “We got 78% of the staff vaccinated well ahead of my original timeline, and I realized we could move ahead.”
Beginning on May 3, the Kalispell branch will be open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. In Columbia Falls, hours will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday, and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. The Bigfork location will announce its new hours on May 3.
The library still encourages patrons to explore services like Personal Shopper, Curbside Pickup and Tech Connect, which are designed to provide free access to information and keep people connected with minimal interaction and risk. To find out more about these services, visit imagineiflibraries.org or call 758-5820.
“The staff was able to look at data and community responses and come up with solutions quickly,” Behe said. “Our library has offered more services online and in-building that most other libraries in the state.”
Behe says that while the library system was able to provide a robust lineup of remote and non-contact services during the pandemic, the shift to conventional hours and staffing would likely take away from some of these services.
The take-home kits that were made available for kids, teens and adults will stop after May, and online offerings such as story times will no longer be filmed new, although the archived videos can be found on the ImagineIF YouTube page.
“Some of the story times are just magical,” Behe said, praising the ability of library staff to rapidly build an online offering to interact with the community. “You can go and see what they created and watch them over again.”
Over the summer, there will be two story times held outside each month, and there will be a junior ranger style summer reading experience program for youths that will be geared toward outdoor activities. Adult programming remains on hold, but Behe is optimistic about returning to full in-person programming in the fall.
While Behe is proud of her staff’s ability to offer as much access as possible to the community, she has concerns about professional burnout after a difficult year.
“This was hands down the most stressful environment to be a public servant in that I have experienced,” Behe said. “But one thing I’ve learned is how to go out and talk to people who don’t necessarily agree with my view on the library. I’ve put an effort in to go and listen to those communities.”
While the library continues to require that masks be worn while inside, Behe will be asking the library board to change the requirement to a recommendation, saying that the risk factors have diminished between vaccination rates, newly installed air filters and routine disinfecting practices. That decision could be implemented as early as April 30.
“I hope there will be a return to stability for us all, so we can get back to being a community that enjoys being together,” Behe said. “We want to stick to our mission and provide the best service to the community as possible.”
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