NORTH PROVIDENCE – Gone (for now) are the days of spending hours browsing shelves of library books, but that hasn’t stopped staff at the North Providence Union Free Library from getting creative this year to offer new services and programs and to create a consistent brand for the organization.

“Staff has been working really, really well together with new information and insights,” Director Stefanie Blankenship told The North Providence Breeze. “Every department has been phenomenal.”

The library, on Mineral Spring Avenue, was forced to close on March 13 and didn’t reopen its doors until July 28. Curbside pickup was offered while the physical building was closed and is still available.

Fortunately the library has been able to retain all 28 employees, said Blankenship, who started as director in the middle of the pandemic on July 6. She took over for Mary Ellen Hardiman, who retired after decades leading the library.

The staff’s trust in each other as well as their “willingness to try new things and not be afraid of the unknown” has been a silver lining this year, Blankenship said. Especially at the beginning of the pandemic, “they braved the unknown to provide books and services to residents of the town.”

She noted that being more informed now than at the start of the pandemic has helped them “operate on a smoother level,” from knowing how long materials must be quarantined to how best to disinfect items and surfaces.

Also during this time, she said, staff has been focused on branding, creating a new logo that’s available on merchandise, such as masks and book bags, which are for sale at the circulation desk.

Jennifer Rolfsema, creative director of Creative Chica, designed the logo, which incorporates the unique architecture of the library, specifically the staircase in the middle of the building, Blankenship said. “That was the inspiration,” she said, noting that the logo incorporates the town colors of blue and gold.

“We’ve never had a logo before,” she added. “It’s good to be recognizable in the community.”

The library also has a new slogan: “Stepping into new possibilities.”

“We took the image of the stairs and that climb toward something bigger and better into account for that,” she said. It symbolizes “reaching a higher level of knowledge.”

A new website is planned to go live in January, which will replace the current site that’s “not very user-friendly,” Blankenship said. In addition to social media, the website will be a place for patrons to get information.

In a pamphlet reflecting on 2020, Blankenship broke down what staff has been working on this year.

The Reference Department, under Joseph Uscio, has continued to provide computer access and assistance to patrons daily. Since reopening at the end of July, there have been 1,261 computer usages and counting.

Providing access to technology has been an important area of focus for library staff during the pandemic, and Blankenship said her hope for 2021 is to be able to stay open, especially for folks who don’t have access to the internet at home.

As of last week Blankenship said that all 22 mobile hotspots, which are free of charge, had been taken out, and often all eight public computers are in use. The library also has Wi-Fi set up in the parking lot for people to work outside or in their cars.

The Circulation Department staff, under the leadership of Gina Marciano and Mary Albanese, offered many services while the library was closed including lobby pickup, virtual crafts and cooking programs, free books, and more. The two were also instrumental in training staff coming back after five months, and staff were great at adapting, Blankenship said.

The Maintenance Department, led by Jerry Russell, has spent every day “sanitizing and cleaning the building to ensure a safe environment for staff and patrons,” she said. “Their hard work and dedication have allowed us to continue operations during this time.”

The Children’s Department staff, under Jenny Durant, have been outside in the rain and cold, providing outdoor activities for families, Blankenship said, adding that they’ve also been putting together virtual programming. “They’re not letting the weather … stop them.” Staff have also set up various story walks at Gov. Notte Park as well as an outdoor Candyland Live game, which had over 200 participants (at different times). Blankenship said they’re lucky to have multiple outdoor spaces available to host programs and thanked the North Providence Pool for allowing them to use their parking lot for story times.

The administration team, of Blankenship, Deputy Director Liz D’Amore, and administrative assistant Heather Zanni, stay informed about current library trends amid the pandemic and acquired grant money to support safety measures and services for librarygoers.

The library received a $1,000 CARES Act mini grant this year, which enabled staff to purchase more sanitizing wipes, hand sanitizer, plastic guards, and other safety items, as well as a $5,000 Take It Outside grant through the city of North Providence, Blankenship said. That second grant enabled staff to host more outdoor programs for families.

“We’re looking for more grant opportunities,” she added, which will help staff continue to offer more services to patrons. Last week she said she applied for a grant to purchase a few igloo tents, which would allow families to read inside the igloo. “We wanted something fun and new and exciting outside the library,” she said.

In 2021, staff will continue hosting outdoor programs, which have been really successful, she said, and they’ll continue to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and safety guidelines.

“As a town and as a library, we faced and continue to face challenges as we navigate through this pivotal time in history,” Blankenship said. “We will continue to provide our patrons with the most efficient and safe environment within our control.”

She said she and staff have maintained a positive attitude throughout the pandemic, and she wants to thank Mayor Charles Lombardi, the Town Council, and the library’s Board of Trustees for their continued support. Thanks also to patrons, she said, for being respectful. “Everyone has been pretty happy and thrilled with what we’ve been able to do for them during this time,” she said. “We wouldn’t be here without them.”

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