(WJHL) – Donna McCalman read the children’s book “I Really Want the Cake” with as much flair and gusto as one can manage in a library children’s section devoid of anyone under 21 Thursday.

A camera operated by Kip Polmanteer rolled, catching a reading like those that post weekly on Johnson City Public Library’s Facebook page at 11 a.m. each Wednesday.

Like the book’s young protagonist, JCPL’s leadership and staff are wanting something they can’t have right now.

Donna McCalman reads in preparation for a Johnson City Public Library storytime video as Kip Polmanteer films.

“It’s on the table sitting there, I cannot help but stop and stare — and now I’m really quite aware: I think I want the cake,” McCalman pronounced.

The delectable prospect for McCalman, JCPL Director Julia Turpin and thousands of patrons is the opening of the library’s doors for in-person, regular business.

“The staff, myself included, have been excited about reopening to the public for awhile, but we also want to do what is the safest thing for our staff and patrons,” Turpin said Thursday.

Until at least the library board’s Sept. 15 meeting, that means a continuation of curbside pickup, virtual storytime and several other features that have kept staff busy and checkout volume relatively strong.

Turpin said the Northeast Regional Health Department’s director, Dr. David Kirschke, conducts weekly electronic meetings with library leaders. “They’ve encouraged us to look at a variety of data points in the area to make decisions,” she said. “We’re just doing a situational analysis of the whole community in that moment of time.”

JCPL Director Julia Turpin

Rather than getting emotionally tossed about by day-to-day changes in COVID-19 numbers, Turpin said JCPL’s board elected to limit its decision-making on reopening to the monthly meeting,

She said when the library does reopen — it shut down March 18 and reopened with curbside service June 1 — much work will have preceded it, including moving staff around the building and changing some of the operations.

“Having that extra cushion will really help us open well and more safely when we do reopen the facility,” Turpin said.

Learning a lot in the meantime

Nearly three months into the virtual reopening, the library has settled into a routine that’s proven effective at serving patrons and keeping connected. The curbside pickup is “going beautifully,” Turpin said.

“We’re doing about 50 percent of what we would ordinarily do, and considering our hours are limited and the way to access materials is limited, I feel like it’s going really well,” she said.

Curated “book bundles” selected by staff are being offered. Print jobs can be ordered electronically and picked up via the curbside service.

And then there’s the weekly storytime and other efforts to keep parents, young children and even tweens and teens engaged.

The library is offering a weekly craft to accompany each story, which parents can pick up through the curbside service. Each week the story and activity, which typically last close to 30 minutes, post to JCPL’s Facebook page at 11 a.m. Tuesdays and stay up until 10 a.m. Wednesdays.

“It’ll go through the story and a little bit of activity and some songs, kind of like you’d experience in a regular storytime, and then we’ll show you how to do the craft you have.”

The limited time is a function of copyright laws, Turpin said. The posts are averaging a reach of about 1,000.

The Jones Meeting Room is now the nerve center of the library’s curbside checkout protocol.

When the library does reopen, Turpin expects some permanent adjustments simply due to what’s been learned during the pandemic and how user habits may change.

She said area library leaders are meeting weekly to discuss reopening strategies, current services, what’s working and what’s not working.

Bristol, Tenn.’s library is currently open with significant limitations, as is Kingsport’s. Other area Tennessee libraries are limited to curbside service, Turpin said.

“We’ve had a lot of cross training, we’ve figured out what mission critical truly is for our folks and we’ve also learned about the resilience of our community. We’re getting a lot of support from them but they also still need us and we’re definitely getting a lot of questions.”

More people than ever are accessing the library’s website through their phones, and many users have experienced electronic browsing and checkout for the first time, gotten used to it and enjoy it, Turpin said.

“So I think there’s going to be a few folks that will just be a different kind of user from now on, but I know too there are those who really want to get back in here and browse the collection, and so we’re anxiously awaiting the time when we can reopen safely and welcome them in again.” 

Perhaps there will even be cake.