CHECK IT OUT: Library circulation returning to pre-COVID levels

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Anna Huang totes a bin full of books into the Hancock County Public Library in Greenfield, accompanied by her daughters Lilly, left, and Emma, right, plus a family friend, Chloe Carter. The Huangs are frequent patrons at the library, where the number of borrowed items is gradually catching up with pre-COVID numbers.

GREENFIELD — Anna Huang had to buy a rolling cart to transport all the books she and her daughters check out from the Hancock County Public Library every few weeks.

“We love the library. We use it a lot,” said Huang, who home schools her daughters Lily, 8, and Emma, 4.

Last Thursday, they family rolled their bin of books into the library’s Greenfield branch and selected a new assortment to take home and enjoy.

Circulation is on the rise at the county library, with the number of items being checked out gradually climbing back toward pre-COVID numbers for the first time since the pandemic hit in March 2020.

“We are happy to report that numbers are finally starting to get back to where we were before COVID,” director Dave Gray said during the library’s board of trustees meeting last week.

Emma Huang, 4, returns an item at the Hancock County Public Library’s Greenfield branch last week, with a little help from her friend Chloe Carter, 12, and her sister Lily, 8. The library has seen an increase in circulation numbers this year, with patrons returning after COVID temporarily impacted library hours and services over the past two years.

Cody Flood, the library’s access services manager, said the library is averaging 73,000 checkouts per month so far this year, compared to 85,000 circulated each month in 2019.

Circulation averaged just 65,000 per month at the height of COVID in 2020, thanks in large part to the library offering home delivery and curbside pickup of books, movies, games and other materials, despite the library being closed for several weeks.

“COVID changed the way people used the library,” said Flood.

“We saw many patrons turn to our digital resources like e-books, digital audio books and more that can be accessed from home. However, we have seen people return to the library as COVID concerns have decreased. Now that people are getting more comfortable coming back into buildings, we are seeing our patrons face-to-face again,” he said.

Flood anticipates that monthly circulation numbers will return to pre-COVID levels by the end of the year.

When COVID began shutting down public spaces in March 2020, the library quickly followed suit, closing both branches in Greenfield and New Palestine on March 17.

The library began curbside service on May 11 and reopened both branch buildings with limited hours on July 6 that year.

“From there we have remained open with either full or reduced hours, and have been open full hours consistently since early 2021,” said Flood.

When the library first reopened after COVID, Huang and her girls would reserve books online and she would walk in to pick them up, minimizing the time spent in the building.

The girls were disappointed when the library’s in-person programming like children’s programs and performances were canceled due to the pandemic. They especially love Amazon John, a popular animal handler and educator who returns to the library each year.

“That was probably what they missed the most” when the library’s programs were temporarily halted, Huang said.

The library resumed socially distanced, in-person programming in the summer of 2021, and returned to full programming this past March. Flood credits the return of in-person programming with the library’s increased circulation rates.

“Summer camps that have brought children to visit in the past are able to do so again as COVID concerns have decreased. Plus, we have great entertainment and information available every day for free,” he said.

This month’s activities have included an author’s talk, baby and preschool story time, arts and crafts for children and teens, interactive Stuntology events and performances by the beloved Amazon John.

“It has been great to see our performers return over the last year,” said Flood.

While he is proud of the way the library handled the pandemic — by offering service through home delivery, curbside pickup and virtual programming — Flood said there’s nothing quite like seeing patrons enjoying the library’s services in-person.

“It has been great seeing new patrons as well as our regulars over the past few months, and we look forward to serving our community for years to come,” he said.

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