Last year, members of B’nai Israel Congregation library checked out about 300 books during the High Holidays. This year it was less than 30. Blame the pandemic. Still, said librarian Jill Gendelman, Blumberg-Zalis Family Library is down but not out.
Gendelman, a retired epidemiologist and congregant, has worked in the library for 14 years. A metallic bust of George Washington sits on a shelf, overlooking the library’s collection of 12,000 items, including 500 DVDs and 200 CDs. The disks are housed in racks next to the stairs where Gendelman read to children. Not anymore.
About 1,500 to 1,800 volumes are checked out annually, Gendelman said. But there was a dramatic drop this year when the library shut its doors to visitors.
That doesn’t mean the library is closed. Gendelman still takes calls and emails requesting items to check out. She’ll leave them with the synagogue’s security guard for pickup or get in the car and drop them off at a patron’s home. The library continues to function, but for Gendelman, it’s not the same.
“Well, of course, I don’t get to see all my friends come in,” she said. “I have gotten emails about, ‘Do you have this book?’ ’Do you have that book?’ So I am still open. People still get books, just not on the scale that we had before. Not even close.”
The library’s programs have moved online. The book and film discussion groups meet over Zoom, but with less participation than in pre-COVID times, Gendelman said. She is organizing two virtual author speaking events in November, which is Jewish Book Month. She is also organizing a virtual book report by Rabbi Emeritus Matthew Simon.
Gendelman believes these measures are temporary, but that the pandemic will have lasting effects on the library. She said quarantining has pushed many away from library books and toward eBook readers. She foresees a permanent drop in checkouts, since fiction, as well as books on Israel and the Holocaust are available online.
“I think that’s going to really affect our library,” Gendelman said. “And I think we’re going to have to rethink what we do with all these volumes.”
A possible exception is books that are large, hard to get or expensive. That includes books on spirituality, Torah commentaries and books on religious practices, such as b’nai mitzvah, weddings and mourning practices.
“All those books will stay in the library,” she said. “Those books are still going to be used, I’m sure, because there’s always people that lose a loved one. They want to know what the Jewish tradition is. So those books will stay in circulation.”
Gendelman doesn’t expect the library to re-open for visitors anytime soon, but she plans to continue to make its services available to the community in the post-COVID world.