With COVID-19 prompting limited services again, new Dover library director looks to 2021

Emily Lytle
Dover Post

When Brian Sylvester started as the new director of the Dover Public Library this July, he — like many people this year — had to throw his expectations aside.

Due to the pandemic, the library had been shuttered for months and only started offering curbside pickup of materials in June.

While Dover City Council initially approved the library’s reopening for early August, it was postponed just days before the expected start date. At the time, City Manager Donna Mitchell said the city made this decision “to make sure it is safe for everyone when we reopen, so we do not have to close back up again.”

Brian Sylvester started as the Dover Public Library’s director in July.

Finally, after a long conversation in October, City Council voted 7-3 to reopen the library Nov. 3. 

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The Dover Public Library was open for browsing and computer use for about a month. All programs were still suspended, and the meeting rooms were closed. A handful of people used the library during that time, but Sylvester said “the only reason it worked is because we never had a whole lot of traffic.”

Then, on Dec. 8, the library once again closed, returning to pickup only service. 

Sylvester said the change was largely in response to the governor’s new restrictions and the nearby Capital School District switching back to remote learning through the new year.

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Now, when people place a book on hold, and the library staff notifies them that the book is ready, they can pick it up at the library’s entrance any time during open hours: from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, and from 2 p.m. to  6 p.m. Wednesday and Friday.

Sylvester said this way is a lot simpler than making appointments like the library required earlier. 

Still, he misses seeing the library in full operation.

“It’s just hard,” he said. “Almost all of the services we traditionally offer at a library are geared towards an in-person audience.”

Bigger library, bigger challenges

When Sylvester was the director at a small “village library” near his hometown in Maine, he managed almost every aspect of the library.

“I had four part-time staff and myself, and that was it,” he said. “So, if somebody needed to go up on the roof and clear the gutters, I went and got the ladder.”

In stark contrast, the Dover Public Library is larger and serves as an anchor or central library for the rest of Kent County. Here, the library director takes on a much more administrative role, providing guidance to the managers below him, Sylvester said.

Dover Public Library, 35 Loockerman Plaza, opened to for browsing and computer-use Nov. 3 .  Starting Dec. 8, those services shut down again, only allowing patrons to pick up materials they already placed on hold.

While Delaware’s libraries are all connected in one statewide network, each one might operate differently based on its size. 

When the pandemic hit, bigger libraries like Dover’s faced distinct challenges from other smaller libraries across the state, Sylvester said. 

For example, he said, Dover’s two-story building has a maximum capacity of about 700 people when considering all the meeting rooms. Monitoring and controlling crowd sizes in that building is much more difficult than a one-story building with a capacity limit of 20 or fewer people.

When the city was considering reopening in the fall, city staff and council members said they were concerned that the library staff would be exposed to too many people. They said it would be difficult to contact trace, or keep track of someone who has tested positive and who they may have exposed.

INITIAL APPROVAL:Dover Public Library to reopen Aug. 4 with extra safety measures

While Dover Public Library has the resources and staff to develop online programming, and people can still pick up materials by placing them on hold, the one thing that the library cannot offer virtually is computer access. 

People must come inside the library for that, Sylvester said. 

“And that's really a primary thing that we do now," he said, "because it's one of the only places in town where you can just come in and hop on a computer for free.”

Hope for 2021

Despite the unknown path ahead, Sylvester said he remains hopeful.

“It seems like the end is in sight, so maybe we can get back to being able to offer those things,” he said. “If we can do Comic Con in 2021, that would be fantastic.”

Meanwhile, many of his staff members are pursuing degrees in library science, and they are working to develop a strategic plan that outlines the library’s vision, goals and values for the next three years.

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Sylvester said he also hopes to ramp up the library’s outreach efforts, especially reaching out to people who may have switched from borrowing to buying books with one-click shopping online — a habit that may have been reinforced during the pandemic. 

“A lot of people probably got used to that so we might have to do some outreach to get people back into the building,” he said. 

In the new year, he plans to build more relationships with other organizations in the community to help spread the word about the library, but also to use the library as a means of helping others.

While working at a library in New Hampshire, Sylvester was heavily involved in the Rotary Club, where the motto is “service above self.”

He wants to continue supporting those in need here in Dover, and he believes the library is the perfect place to do that.  

“I mean you could let it just be a warehouse full of books if you wanted to," he said, "but it could be a lot more."