Absence makes the heart grow fonder according to the book on love.

Meryl Gisselquist and Karen Johnson’s affinity for the Brainerd Public Library only grew when its doors were temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I don’t have TV, so I watch good English murder mysteries because ‘Hollyweird’ does not make stuff like this,” Gisselquist said Wednesday, June 9, while holding DVDs from the library. “They stopped making good movies back in the ‘70s.”

The retired school teacher from Garrison ran into Johnson, the program manager for Crow Wing Energized, at the library. Johnson was perusing the new bookshelves near the entrance.

“I’m here at least once a month if not every other week,” Johnson said. “I love to look at what’s out there, what’s new, that I haven’t read before, so I usually stick to nonfiction.”

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The Brainerd resident has had a library card for a quarter of a century. But her love was tested when the library closed its doors on March 18, 2020, due to coronavirus concerns.

Karen Johnson browses books on the shelves Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Brainerd Public Library. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Karen Johnson browses books on the shelves Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Brainerd Public Library. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“That was a huge void for me. I love to read and I have not yet figured out how to, like — I don’t have a Kindle … and I also haven't downloaded books before, so I know you can do that through here but I haven't,” Johnson said.

Hoopla and Cloud Library are apps that allow those with Kitchigami Regional Library System cards to check out audiobooks, e-books, music, TV shows and movies for free from their smartphones, tablets or computers. The Brainerd Public Library is part of the library system.

“I really love just looking around the library. I really missed it when the library wasn’t opened,” said Johnson, who is now planning a trip to Yosemite National Park with the help of the library’s travel books.

Adapting to the times

The Kitchigami Regional Library System is one of 12 regional library systems in Minnesota, providing library service to more than 130,000 residents in Beltrami, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard and Wadena counties.

“We were still answering patrons’ questions via email and picking up messages at the library,” Brainerd Public Library Manager Jenny Hill said when the facilities’ doors were closed. “We like to say we never fully closed, although obviously, our services were very limited for a time.”

More than 250 library patrons had items waiting for them to pick up when the Brainerd Public Library on South Fifth Street initially closed its doors in March of 2020. Like most public places, the library shuttered in light of the pandemic.

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Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Brainerd Library. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Brainerd Library. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“Three months later, that’s when we started our curbside service where we were taking requests over the phone or people will email things to us. And then we’d get them ready and deliver this, deliver the books, DVDs or library materials to them curbside — contact-free,” Hill said.

Gisselquist said, “You order something on phone. And then they call you when it’s available, and then you drive up here to the library and call them, and then they would bring it out on a table, and then when they went back in, you could get out of your car to pick it up.”

The number of items checked out fell by more than 80% from the first week in June 2019 when the building was open to a year later when it was only curbside pickup. But the number of checked-out items more than tripled from last year to this year when the doors reopened.

Jenny Hill, who works at the reference desk at the Brainerd Public Library, Tuesday, March 17, shows the Kitchigami Regional Library System website page where people can find the Cloud Library app. Jennifer Kraus / Brainerd Dispatch
Jenny Hill, who works at the reference desk at the Brainerd Public Library, Tuesday, March 17, shows the Kitchigami Regional Library System website page where people can find the Cloud Library app. Jennifer Kraus / Brainerd Dispatch

“So a significant decrease because again, you know, we were having to prepare for one customer specifically for each of those curbside service appointments,” Hill said.

All programs, classes, events, room bookings and AARP Tax-Aide appointments were also canceled at the Brainerd Public Library when it closed.

“For some of our patrons, we are their main source of internet access, so our public internet computers were definitely missed. Our Wi-Fi, which is accessible in the parking lot, remained available throughout the pandemic,” Hill said.

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The library purchased Wi-Fi hotspots with a COVID-19 relief grant, so patrons who did have their own Wi-Fi device could check out a hotspot and use it at home or anywhere else. The hotspots will remain a standard item now available for checkout at all Kitchigami Regional libraries. Patrons also turned to the library’s online presence to learn more about its offerings.

“We have a WordPress blog that has a series of pages that cover things like new books, virtual programming, how to sign up for a library card or request things online,” Hill said. “In 2019, we had 900 views of those pages. In 2020, we had 3,584 views, so that increased by fourfold.”

To slow the spread of the coronavirus, health officials sought to limit social gatherings, which prompted the library to do more online and still serve patrons the best it could, such as offering curbside pickup like many other businesses. It is still, however, offering curbside pickup.

“Even though we’ve reopened to our full hours, we do still have the customers who are immunocompromised or have other issues that they prefer not to come into the building, and so we have kept the curbside service,” Hill said.

The library’s “Grab & Go” hours started in September to limit social gathering and ended June 1. Patrons during those hours could pick up requests, browse the library stacks for up to 15 minutes, use the public internet computers or get assistance with brief reference questions.

“We like to say we kind of built a bookstore within the library at that point to make it really easy for customers to find the new stuff — ‘the good stuff’ — they call it,” Hill said. “And then when the case rates in our county rose so quickly and became so high we returned the curbside only service mid-November.”

Patron use of the Brainerd Public Library fell and rose accordingly to limits and changes related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Patron use of the Brainerd Public Library fell and rose accordingly to limits and changes related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Starting a new chapter

The Brainerd Public Library resumed its regular, pre-pandemic open hours June 1. Some of the staff continue, however, to wear face masks, which were required before vaccination rates rose and the number of COVID-19 cases in the area dropped.

“There is no mask requirement either for our staff or our patrons at this time. The recommendation for those who haven’t been vaccinated to please consider wearing a mask,” Hill said.

Last year, in response to the pandemic, the library created a way for those without library cards to register for one online. That innovative new service will continue.

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“Now there’s a link on the library’s website where you can type in all your information online, say which of our branches you want to be your home library, the information gets sent to us, and we create the library card and it gets mailed out to you,” Hill said.

The Brainerd Public Library puts out a newsletter via email. There were about 1,000 subscribers before the pandemic but now there are more than 1,600, representing a 62% increase.

Library assistant Angie Flaten returns books to shelves Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Brainerd Public Library. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Library assistant Angie Flaten returns books to shelves Wednesday, June 9, 2021, at the Brainerd Public Library. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

“That highlights all of our programs coming up in a month, but again, it’s that online education piece where you can click to see our services, click directly to see the new materials and read about new materials as well as requests,” Hill said.

While many of the library patrons continued to borrow materials by making requests online at the library’s website during the pandemic, others like Gisselquist and Johnson said they missed the personal touch and friendly service that comes with visiting the library in person.

“It’s just been really heartwarming to be working the desk and having people say, ‘Oh, you know, I haven’t seen you in months. It’s great to see you again! Isn't it great to be out?’ And, you know, the library is a destination in that sense where people meet up,” Hill said.

About the library

The Brainerd Public Library is located at 416 S. Fifth St. Regular library hours are 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday; and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Very limited curbside service will still be available by appointment at the Brainerd branch, which is part of the Kitchigami Regional Library System.

Face masks are not required to be worn but are appreciated, according to library officials.

For more information, call 218-829-5574, email brainerd@krls.org or visit krls.org.



FRANK LEE may be reached at 218-855-5863 or at frank.lee@brainerddispatch.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchFL