Angela Rodman holds her daughter, Harper, 3, while teaching a geography lesson to her older children, Bennett, 9, left, and Ainsleigh, 7, during homeschooling on Friday, March 12, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

In recent months, Angela Rodman has driven 30 minutes from Salem to libraries in Dallas or McMinnville to browse for science and geography books she uses to homeschool her three kids aged 9, 7 and 3.

The Salem Public Library patron said she feels fortunate she has the time to make the trek. But she’s been frustrated by the Salem library’s closure, limited pickup times and less access to materials. In the meantime, she says she and her family have been “limping along,” making the arrangement work.  

“It’s really it’s been an issue for a long time.,” she said. “Books are so important to me, and reading is so important to our family.”

Before the pandemic, Rodman said she’d have her library cards maxed out with as many books she’s been allowed to borrow. Now, she’s had to forgo certain books that she hasn’t been able to find and has ended up buying more books this year for her kids.

Salem book enthusiasts have relied on the local library for entertainment and education while many pandemic-related restrictions remain in effect. While the library has seen its operations slowed, causing frustration among patrons, it’s taking steps to improve access to its materials.

The Salem Public Library, located at 1400 Broadway St. N.E., has been closed to the public since March. In late May, the library began offering appointments for patrons to pick up holds placed online or over the phone.

Katie Karnes expressed similar frustrations as Rodman. She said she used to take her three kids, aged 8, 6 and 3 to the library once a week to load up on books about space or dinosaurs. 

“It was a major part of our week and major resource for us,” she said.

Her kids are enrolled in a charter school but most of their education is homeschool-based. She said in recent months it has been a lot harder to get books.

If there’s a book she wants, there’s often a waiting list with five to ten people ahead of her. And the curbside pickup times were limited to the middle of the day a couple days a week or a few hours on Saturdays, so it was difficult to get a spot, she said.

To find library books, Karnes said she’s limited to what she can find searching online and what she has the time to pick up because she works full-time.

Before the pandemic, she would browse the aisles with her kids to find reading materials off the shelf.

Karnes recently found out about the library’s Book Match program, a service started in September where librarians will give a personalized list of book recommendations that can be reserved and picked up.

“More people need to know about this service. I have no idea what books are available to pick up today,” Karnes said.

She said she loves the library and wants to know how it needs to be supported right now.

City librarian Sarah Strahl said if people just ask, there’s a virtual desk that can help parents meet curriculum needs.

“We have a whole plethora of resources,” she said.

Strahl said because the library moved to a much smaller temporary space on Broadway last year, she and her staff want to make sure they can allow people back safely, if they do allow in-person browsing.

She said the Salem library serves a much larger community than neighboring libraries that have opened like Independence and Dallas.

“We don’t want to be a vector of any kind, not for staff and not for patrons,” she said. “We don’t want to be contributor of us going back into an extreme risk category. We’re trying to find that balance of safety and service.”

Strahl said she’s hopeful the library will be able to allow patrons to browse the shelves in person before the library moves back into its permanent location this summer. But she didn’t want to overpromise and said it would likely only be one day a week.

“I don’t want to overpromise that people are going to be able to come in and sprawl out and spend hours on the computer,” she said. “It’s still going to look different.”

Currently the library is offering curbside service by appointment on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

On March 8, the library expanded its curbside pickup hours and doubled the number of appointments available to 340 each week.

After expanding access, Strahl said the library isn’t seeing open slots filled immediately like before.

Librarians are looking at which online books are most popular and have long hold lines to catch up with ordering, Strahl said. There have been times because of Covid restrictions that librarians haven’t been able to process physical items in and out of the system, so the library shifted to ordering more e-book content.

“We’re looking at that all of the time and seeing what the demand is and trying to buy for those high demands” Strahl said.

Some of the popular titles include “American Dirt,” a novel about a Mexican woman who comes to America as an undocumented immigrant, which was widely criticized for relying on racist stereotypes;  “Froggy’s Lemonade Stand,” a children’s book about a frog who drinks all the lemonade from his stand; “Boy-Crazy Stacy,” a young adult novel that’s part of “The Babysitter’s Club” series and “Camino Winds,” a crime novel by John Grisham.

One of the complaints from patrons was that the library wouldn’t transfer materials to other branches within the regional library service.

Strahl said there are several factors why the library isn’t processing holds from other libraries. The quarantining process takes 96 hours and keeping those items in the temporary location was taking up a lot of space and staff time.

She said people may see fees accumulate in their account but the due dates have all been extended on items owned by the Salem Public Library.

With the library closed, Strahl said her staff is trying to think of new and innovative ways to reach people. She mentioned a library in the virtual game Animal Crossing or a program that delivers books to homebound seniors.

“All of us miss patrons and miss patron interactions,” Strahl said. “We encourage folks to reach out to us via email, via our chat service.”

Ainsleigh Rodman, 7, left, and brother Bennett, 9, work on a geography lesson with their mother, Angela, while homeschooling on Friday, March 12, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected]

Salem Reporter counts on community support to fund vital local journalism. You can help us do more.

SUBSCRIBE: A monthly digital subscription starts at $5 a month.

GIFT: Give someone you know a subscription.

ONE-TIME PAYMENT: Contribute, knowing your support goes towards more local journalism you can trust.