People wait for the Portland Public Library to open just before 11 a.m. on Tuesday Nov. 9, 2021. Visits were limited to 30 minutes and the building closed to the public at 2 p.m. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — On Tuesday morning, a crowd of about a dozen people stood outside the glass doors at the main branch of the Portland Public Library in Monument Square. Written in a multitude of languages, the word “welcome” greeted them above the portal as they waited for opening time.

At the stroke of 11 a.m., a masked man appeared and unlocked the doors. The congregation then filed in, one at a time, while more people waiting further up the street joined them.

They didn’t have any time to waste.

Each patron was facing a 30 minute browsing time limit imposed by the library. Also, the building would close four hours later, at 2 p.m.

While most other large city libraries around the state have reverted to their regular hours, Portland’s main branch is still only open a few hours a day. Those hours do not include any nights or weekends, making it inconvenient — or impossible — for some people to access the stacks and computers.

But the situation is not likely to change anytime soon. Library officials say it will likely be 2022 before hours at the main branch return to anything approaching normal.

The problem is — you guessed it — short staffing.

Library Director Sarah Campbell said she was able to hire back everyone the library was forced to furlough during the pandemic but other turnover has left it short staffed in crucial, customer service positions.

“We have a lot of openings in our front desk and computer services staff,” Campbell said “and we’re trying to rebuild our team.”

Campbell wouldn’t say just how many vacant positions she was trying to fill but confirmed three new hires just this week.

Current job openings listed on the library’s website include one for a public safety specialist. It’s a full time position with hourly pay starting at $19.87 per hour. Also listed is a lending and computer services associate. Also full time, the pay starts at $18.92 per hour.

The limited hours are frustrating for some long-time library users.

“Even before COVID, it was closed on Sundays, which I always thought was outrageous. Now, with Saturdays and evenings out of the picture the [Portland library] just isn’t part of my lifestyle anymore,” said Portland musician Myles Simcock.

Simcock said he used to like to stop by on Saturdays, check out a pile of books and then while away the afternoon reading and drinking coffee. He’s not alone in missing the Saturday hours.

“It used to be a regular weekend stop for me and my family,” said Jeremy Fink of Portland. “Without the ability to just hang and browse on a Saturday afternoon, we don’t use it nearly as much anymore.”

As it stands now, the main branch is open from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays.

Things are different at other locations though, where staffing isn’t a problem. The Portland library’s satellite locations on Peaks Island, in Riverton and Deering (known as the Burbank branch) are operating at close to their pre-pandemic hours, including a few hours on Saturdays. But most of the library’s assets are at the main branch. The satellites are geared more toward picking up books requested in advance.

Satellite locations are also operating with a 30-minute time limit for browsing and some, being small, have capacity limits of just 15 people.

“I live around the corner from Burbank, so I can make it work,” said Theresa Flaherty, “but the [main branch] hours are unworkable for anyone with a regular work schedule.”

Library officials said they are aware people are frustrated with the current situation but there’s not much they can do. The pandemic decimated their workforce.

“It’s been heartbreaking,” said Campbell. “We want to serve everyone.”

Portland’s main library branch has also long operated as a de facto day shelter for Portlanders experiencing homelessness. Before the pandemic, the library’s front atrium, with its cafe-style tables, computers and large, public bathrooms, was a popular and safe place for folks to rest and stay warm in the colder months.

It was so popular that in 2019 the library hired a full time social worker to help connect patrons with other city and non-profit services they might need. Campbell said the library plans to continue the service, even though patrons can only stay 30 minutes at a time. The library also just hired a second, full-time social worker as well.

But the atrium has been closed since the start of the coronavirus crisis and Campbell isn’t sure if it will ever return to its previous incarnation, given widespread community disease transmission.

“We’re not sure if that makes sense anymore,” she said.

In contrast to Portland’s main branch, public libraries in Bangor, Lewiston, Augusta and Biddeford are all back to their regular schedules, including weeknight and weekend hours.

In Brunswick, the Curtis Memorial Library is even open seven days a week and most weeknights until 8 p.m.

Ben Treat, director of the Bangor Public Library, said it’s business as usual at his operation and his in-person programming is even back on track.

“We have a good schedule of adult programs and the children’s programming is back to normal,” Treat said.

Treat indicated he has no staffing issues and isn’t imposing any time limits on patrons’ browsing time.

“We do have people that come and spend a fair amount of the day here but we’re masking,” he said, “and it’s a large enough library so that we can spread out.”

In Portland, Campbell wants patrons to know they’re working on getting back to longer hours. Until then, she hopes people will be patient.

Portlanders, like Jennifer Lunden of Parkside say they’re trying.

“One day, a couple weeks ago, I got there at 1:30 p.m., having forgotten to check their schedule, only to learn it didn’t open till 2 p.m.,” Lunden said. “I wouldn’t say I’m having problems accessing it, but I wish it would go back to its previous hours.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.