MRL isn’t satisfied with a return to normal. It’s making more changes.

The Central Library in Downtown Harrisonburg is back to pre-pandemic hours, although some programs remain virtual.

By Jessica Kronzer, contributor

When Massanutten Regional Library re-opened in March, Lois Jones, the library’s director, stood at the front doors, slightly concerned that the public might resist their masks requirement for those age 5 and older. 

Instead of witnessing conflict, Jones saw children dancing through the doors and up the aisles to check out books. It reminded Jones how the library can’t exist in a “vacuum” — and that both library workers and patrons were equally eager to use the full range of library services

“That very first day, there were so many smiles of people being so thrilled to have a library,” Jones said. “And I will say that our staff members had some of the biggest smiles of all.”

The library isn’t just returning to normal but making some long-term changes. Last week, Massanutten Regional Libraries launched a new website and expanded its hours, in some cases beyond pre-pandemic hours. And come August, Jones will retire after 33 years, prompting the nonprofit library’s board to search for a new director. 

That’s not the only high-profile staffing change. In late April, the library hired a new director of advancement, Mary Golden Hughes after the retirement of Michael Evans from that role. Golden Hughes previously worked in marketing and public relations at MRL and served on the board of trustees from 2014-2017. 

Golden Hughes said the libraries returned to their pre-COVID hours or even stretched their hours to better meet the needs of visitors in different areas.

“Each community … has a different set of routines,” Golden Hughes said. “We’re just trying to provide enough service hours that we can get more people in the door to use our services.”

Lockdowns shuttered the library for three months, but Jones said the pandemic provided an opportunity for the library to show its “resilience” and ability to innovate. The website, which hadn’t been updated since the mid-2000s, got a makeover, getting redesigned to help users get information with fewer clicks.

Besides receiving a few questions about navigation, Golden Hughes said the feedback has been positive. While Golden Hughes said MRL will continue to reassess based on users’ comments, she said she’s confident the website is headed in the right direction.

“Websites should never be static and best practice has webmasters seeking continuous quality improvement by constantly review metrics, user experience and general feedback to keep refining and improving communications,” Golden Hughes said in a follow-up email. “Feedback is always welcome at MRL!”

While library cards typically must be renewed in-person, the library allowed people to renew over the phone during the pandemic. Library staff also provided curbside pickup for books before reopening their doors. For Jones, it was a “learning experience.”

As a nonprofit library, Jones said MRL had to come up with its own policies based on guidance from the Virginia Health Department and the federal Centers for Disease Control.  

“We were in a situation where we had to start from scratch,” Jones said. “It was rather nerve wracking; I can honestly say it was one of the most stressful that we’ve had in the years I’ve been here.”

Other changes out of the pandemic are more permanent. With the absence of visitors, they installed new carpets in the central library in downtown Harrisonburg. Following the nation-wide trend, MRL’s board of trustees also voted to permanently remove late-fees.

“Libraries are really the great equalizer,” Golden Hughes said. “They offer equal access to everyone in the community. So, to have a barrier, like fines because of overdue books, really goes counter to the mission.”

Using a federal CARES Act grant, the Page Public Library and Shenandoah Community Library branches both expanded their Wi-Fi. The grant also paid for Shenandoah Community Library to purchase new furniture and rearrange sections to make them more spacious.

As with many organizations, the pandemic inspired the library staff to innovate. MRL purchased audio and video equipment to create resource videos. Golden Hughes said MRL’s YouTube page is filled with content including Zoom recordings of virtual visits with authors and craft tutorials.

Massanutten Regional Library launched its redesigned website during the first week of July.

“Our librarians just came alive with new ways to bring information,” Golden Hughes said.

Donors supported the library throughout the pandemic to cover additional costs, such as cleaning supplies. A church in New Jersey mailed the nonprofit a “huge” shoe box full of masks, Jones said the staff still doesn’t know the “connection” that inspired the donation.

“It’s just been really affirming to see how much that support was there,” Golden Hughes said. “Even in trying times, people still supported us financially and we are grateful for it.”

The library has continued to connect people through programs like the summer reading program online. The program has 2,000 readers and has a record number of adult participants.

“All seven of our branches are that connection hub for people to feel like they belong to something,” Golden Hughes said. “Which was very difficult during the pandemic.”

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