In recent years, changes have come to county libraries as needs expand beyond books. Libraries have invested in resources on living safely and healthily, enmeshing their importance in the information age.
But with the Wren Memorial Library in Siler City closed for four scheduled weeks of infrastructure repair, the county’s information needs are now stretched between two branches.
“It’s a pretty big project, so that’s why the library had to be closed,” said Linda Clarke, director of the Chatham County Public Libraries. “It was something that was badly needed.”
The 50-year-old branch has been closed since July 29. Repairs include a new roof, interior ceiling, insulation, duct work, shelving and carpet cleaning. Mike Cowell, branch manager at Wren Memorial, said the work repairs damage left by flooding and heavy rains from the last hurricane.
Shrink wrap covers books, computers and furniture to keep everything in place for reopening.
The three libraries in Chatham County offer services that most other community libraries share, including programming for children and adults, e-books and free internet.
But the Chatham public library system adopted other services that uniquely accommodate its majority rural population with communities dotted all over the income spectrum.
Some of the more recent initiatives to meet the library system’s goals of minimizing barriers to service and promoting consumer health literacy included in-house distribution sites for CORA’s Summer Nutrition Assistance for Chatham Kids (SNACK!) program, job fairs, more K-12 programming and health care enrollment sessions, according to the 2019-2020 county budget.
The triangular network of the Goldston, Pittsboro and Siler City branches sits centered in the rectangular county, so the corners are excluded from a local branch.
The Wren library building is owned by the town of Siler City, which hired the contractors and paid for the repairs, said Clarke. She added that the last hurricane forced a leak in the building that damaged the biography section of the library.
The town of Siler City is also funding the repairs, which cost about $200,000, Cowell said. Cowell said the repairs had been planned, but after the hurricane, they gained priority in the budget.
Clarke said donations also came from patrons to fix the library, but those numbered less than 100, she said.
Siler City in itself also presents specific needs because the majority of the growing Hispanic population is based there.
The Goldston and Siler City branches share a bilingual staff member that splits her time between the two. But since Wren Memorial is closed, she works exclusively at the Goldston branch until the repairs are complete, Goldston Branch Manager Sharon Brewer said.
Other services usually offered in Siler City have been temporarily absorbed by the other two locations.
Afterschool programming for youth is also helpful for parents who work late jobs and perhaps cannot provide homework help. Though most youth activities are suspended, storytime has moved off site to the Pittsboro branch, Clarke said.
But the construction work is so extensive, no one, including staff, are permitted in or around the library. So, staff members were either relocated or went on planned vacations for this time period, Clarke said.
“All of the library staff is very customer-service oriented so it doesn’t matter what branch they’re in, they do the same customer service,” Clarke said.
Late fees that patrons could incur during this closing are on hold, but material returns can be made at the other locations.
The library’s scheduled reopen date also coincides with the first day of school on Aug 26. If all goes to plan, all the library’s services should resume then, but the press release from the town said the reopen date could be delayed depending on construction.
But Cowell said there have been some weather delays to construction due to rain.
“Some days they can work on it,” Cowell said. “Some days they’ve only been able to work on it [for] half a day because we’ve been in a rainy spell.”
That’s a critical time window considering Siler City houses seven public schools, and 50 percent of public school children receive free or low cost meals in Chatham County, an indicator of poverty. Over the summer, SNACK! serves to fill in any gaps left by free or low-cost meals provided by schools.
The food pantry distribution at Wren Memorial paused on July 23, almost a week before the branch closed.
Clarke said the library could not continue distribution in the parking lot or outside the building because construction barricaded the entire site. Relocating the distribution temporarily would also be difficult because she said families get used to coming to the same place, and farmers who deliver fresh produce in the mornings would also have to change their route.
“It takes quite a bit of organization to make this run smoothly,” Clarke said.
So instead, to compensate, the group gave out extra food during the last distribution to keep some families from missing a crucial food source.
“The way we look at the library, it’s not like, “OK, well, here’s the part that’s our job; there’s the part that’s your job,’” Clarke said. “It’s just like, ‘Here’s the library that we have in the town of Siler City and how best can we make that function?’”
Ari Sen contributed reporting.