To some, it may seem like long ago and far away. To others, it may seem like yesterday: Friday, March 13, 2020.

Susan Brown, the director of the Chapel Hill Public Library, says she has a very “visual and visceral” memory of the day of the library’s COVID-19 lockdown. At around noon, a staff member announced over the P.A. system that the library would close at five o’clock. That is, not just close for the day.

As hour zero approached, and word spread in the community, resourceful readers seized the moment.

“People were checking out armloads and laundry baskets full of books,” Brown says. “It was this interesting mix of people being unsure of what was happening and what would happen next. And, of course at the time we all thought: We’ll be closed for two weeks. Maybe two months.”

Like other businesses, the library adapted and improvised. During the pandemic, it focused on its “park and pick-up” program—a labor-intensive process, serving about 900 people daily, with about 1,500 books requested every day.

Brown says that tasks that required just one person during ordinary times took four people.

“It took 100 percent of our staff capacity. Still, the checking-out of books decreased,” she says. That’s because the only way to access books was by putting them on hold using the website. There was no browsing of the stacks. “

“But compared to other public libraries our circulation [during the pandemic] was very high,” she adds. “Chapel Hill is a town that reads.”

Now, a page is being turned as the pandemic—and the library—begins a new chapter.

On July 8, the library reopened for browsing, although with some occupancy limits. Much of the furniture has been removed and initially, patrons will not be allowed to sit at tables or chairs. Masks are required. The library remains closed on Wednesdays, but Sunday hours have been restored.

As the 10 a.m. opening of the library approached, last Thursday, five adults and two children were waiting, during a driving rainstorm, to enter the library. As the rain eased up, a half-hour later, there were perhaps 100 or more people in the library wandering the stacks.

At main check-out area The Hub, Library Experiences Coordinator Mansir Petrie, a recent hire, was helping patrons navigate the new world of browsing. Petrie is among a group of library staff in the Library Experiences Division who are tasked with making the library easier to use, and removing barriers to its use. During the last few years, the library has adopted the “user experience” or “UX” model, an idea that has been embraced in many different fields.

“The Library Experiences Division is about hospitality and stewardship of the resources,” says Petrie. “Something really good is happening here.”

“I welcome and look forward to opportunities where we can just increase community interaction,” says Petrie, adding that he is intrigued by the “transformative power” of libraries, including the possibilities for cross-cultural education. For his part, Petrie grew up in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and went to Grinnell College in Iowa.

He’s a fluent speaker of English, Spanish, and Portuguese, and has done international community development work in numerous countries outside the United States. Most recently he was a program manager for the Peace Corps in Panama.

“As a Quaker, growing up in the Religious Society of Friends, [you] really get a sense that there is a God in everyone,” says Petrie, “There was a real sense that no matter where you’re from, or what your perspective is, you’re valued. You have worth. As I started to travel, I enjoyed working in community development—working with these communities and voices that were traditionally not as heard—hearing about how they wanted their development project to go, what was important to them in the community.”

Moving forward through the recovery and beyond, library director Susan Brown says that the library “will be doubling down, thinking about taking us out to where historically marginalized populations and others are. What COVID really showed us is how many people—even here in Chapel Hill—still can’t get to us.”

“The library has been taking The Circulator, which is our mobile library unit, to some of the mobile home parks and some of the public parks near public housing,” says Brown. “The folks that work two or three jobs and can’t get here by 8 p.m.”

Petrie says that one of the things that attracted him to his new job is the idea that the library is “a living room to the community.”

“I think it is a real social justice thing—people who don’t have access to computers,” Petrie says. “And [this] to me is such a service. It’s very important that people can access what they need and navigate this world that’s so digital.”

Pre-COVID, Brown says that about 65 percent of the library’s business was kids and families, both check-outs and programs. Over the last six or so years, the library has been working on building out its adult and community cultural programs.

“When a community is grappling with something,” Brown says. “The library should be the place where we can come together and talk about it and grapple with it together.”

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