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Curbside On the Inside

Curbside On the Inside

Get the inside scoop on how Madison Public Libraries provided service during COVID-19
Page Deena Brazy loads the curbside table at Sequoya Library

Library page Deena Brazy loads up the curbside pickup table at Sequoya Library. 

Library Lending During the Pandemic

A large folding table sits in the sun on the sidewalk in front of the Sequoya library covered in clear plastic bags and paper labels fluttering in the breeze. The parking lot is busy with cars as patrons pull up, don their masks, and hop up to the table to find their name. Many of them pause to peer in the window to see if they can catch the eye of a librarian inside to enthusiastically wave a thank you. 

When Madison Public Library started curbside pick-up services for library materials in May 2020, it was clear our community had missed us. 

“I have been using Curbside Pickup service once a week after it was introduced.” One patron told us, “I usually frequent Goodman South for it is just across the street from where I reside. Thank you for the amazing service!”

With nearly 1,500 pick-ups in the first week, the numbers have steadily continued to climb. The week of August 24th, there were 1,435 appointments for pickup at Sequoya Library alone, with over 4,500 items checked out. System wide we see about 4,250 individual pick-up appointments weekly across our the 9 libraries. 


curbside graph May-August
Library clerk Victoria shows off the full hold shelves at Sequoya

Library clerk Victoria Kemnetz shows off the full hold shelves at Sequoya Library. 

Patrons are able to place holds on titles that are on the shelf at a particular library. Once the items are ready, they receive a notification and can call to schedule a pick up time. Normally, patrons are able to have easy access to collections at over 40 local libraries, but with long delays in delivery due to quarantine restrictions, borrowing has been limited. Many patrons also miss the ability to just browse the shelves for new titles. 

However, Madison Public Librarians have come up with creative ways to meet patrons’ needs. Starting with easier ways to apply for library cards online and through the mail. As of September, we have had 2848 new virtual library card applications for patrons to access digital titles and databases. A collection greatly expanded thanks to an incredibly generous $154,000 gift from the Madison Public Library Foundation in April. 

Librarians have also created new online tools for better navigating the library catalog, introduced a new Librarians’ Picks CSA-style request system, and launched a new online scheduler for curbside the first week of October. 

So far, our patrons have been incredibly happy with the results. One patron told us, “PLEASE keep this service after the COVID pandemic. I adore this type of thing. I spend so much money on book mystery boxes.” We adore it too! Connecting our community  to the right books has always been our passion, but our happy patron didn’t stop there...

“Ps. I appreciate you all so much for coming back to work and getting books circulating in the public again. I know you are risking your safety to serve the general public and I just wanted to let y’all know that doesn’t go unappreciated.”

overrun with books

The large conference room at Sequoya library was overflowing with materials after August 1st, all quarantining and waiting to go back out to the public. 

Overcoming Challenges to Service

Hearing comments like these, or getting emails and social media posts full of positive encouragement keeps us going.  Tim Haub, a clerk at the Pinney library (and safety captain extraordinaire according to his coworkers) told us “It’s a work in progress,” Tim admitted, “we’re short on staff - we’ve lost four pages in the last several months and there is a hiring freeze. So everyone is putting in more hours, but everyone is happy to do their part.” 

Staffing isn’t just down at the Pinney library, Sequoya library is also feeling short staffed, losing 5 pages due to retirements, moves, and return of college students to work. Pages are the cogs of the library that allow everything to run smoothly, they check in books, pull books for holds, reshelve titles, and run curbside service. It’s often a physically intensive job, and many employees have been working more hours, yet are still managing to stay optimistic. 

We talked with Katarina Klafka, a page at Pinney library. “I’m constantly thinking ‘what can I do next to be the most helpful?’” There is a lot to do, many libraries are still struggling with the backlog of items from the massive number of returns on August 1st, a process slowed by social distancing requirements within the buildings, and quarantine procedures for materials. Not to mention worrying about her own safety being on the front lines of service. 

But Katarina didn’t dwell on this. She preferred to tell us the parts she liked most. “On the day we announced that we were officially Fine Free I got to be the phone scheduler for curbside pick-ups. It was so much fun to tell everyone and hear their reactions! I look forward to the days I get to have those direct interactions with the people we miss.”

Emer Dahl surrounded by red bins of books

Sequoya clerk Emer Gallagher dates quarantined deliveries for safe check ins. 

Sequoya Library - the busiest circulating library in the system - has had its fair share of challenges on top of the pandemic. A partial ceiling leak and collapse, a major sidewalk renovation, a power outage, being a polling place for the primary election, and still their staff has enabled their curbside pick-up numbers to climb. 

In a pep talk email to her staff, Sequoya Clerk Emer Gallagher commended them. “To me, seeing these numbers climb each week is amazing, but I don’t want us to gloss over the fact that you’ve all been doing this phenomenally consistent job even with these huge obstacles in your way. While sometimes things have been a hot mess inside, the public has only seen a very well oiled machine and has no idea how hard you’ve all worked to serve them.” Sorry Emer, the cat’s out of the bag. 

We talked to Emer and Sequoya Clerk Michelle Herbrand on Friday, September 11th in the circulation room (or formerly the huge Sequoya conference room) surrounded by giant return bins and stacks of red delivery buckets. “On August 1st, we were so overwhelmed and running out of bins that we were having to dump giant stacks of books out on the floor to reuse buckets. We were just overrun and so behind.” Michelle told us. 

“It was hard coming to work every day and working for so many hours and still feeling like we weren’t even making a dent.” She added,  “We wanted to get as many things checked in, so we could get them back out again. But we’re doing a lot better now.” As a matter of fact, that Friday the Sequoya team had FINALLY caught up with the huge influx of materials… and Emer and Michelle bought everyone a pizza party.

While our patrons may not see how fast library staff are paddling under the calm waters of curbside, they have still been forthcoming with their appreciation. Thank you to everyone in the community who has reached out.

While we are all longing for normalcy - leisurely browsing, hanging out to read the paper, or finding a cozy corner to explore new books with our kids - we appreciate everyone’s encouragement and consideration for the safety of our staff. We look forward to connecting with you even if just in small doses.

“My favorite job is when I’m on the phone, talking with people.” Tim said, “I like to hear familiar voices of our regulars, even if I sometimes have to cut myself off when our patrons want to talk and the phone keeps ringing. It keeps me going.”


Rebecca Millerjohn
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