Q&A: A Conversation With John Jermain Library Director Catherine Creedon

John Jermain Memorial Library Director Catherine Creedon.

The John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor is celebrating the 110th anniversary of its founding, on October 10, 1910, and library director Catherine Creedon paused this week to talk about the occasion, as well as the challenges the institution faced this year as it sought to serve the community during the coronavirus pandemic.

Are you planning any special festivities?

Our birthday is October 10, so this year it is 10/10/20, which has a nice ring. An anonymous donor has been smitten by those numbers and has offered to double the amount in donations we receive. So if we get $10,000 it will be doubled and if we get $20,000, it will be doubled. So 10/10/2020 is a pretty awesome birthday.

We have a number of other events planned, but, of course, we will be mindful of the need for social distancing. Arielle Hessler, our emerging technology librarian, is running a “We are the library” project, and she is asking people to send short videos of themselves just saying, “We are the library,” to our email address, marketing@johnjermain.org. We will compile those videos of the community and show them on our website. We are asking people to get really creative, maybe do it as a family or socially distanced group of friends, with or without masks. I can’t wait to see what people do for that.

We are also hoping to give back to the community for our birthday. Because we are mindful of our place in the community and the environment, our children’s librarian, Diana LaMarca, will lead other library staff in cleaning Havens Beach the week after our birthday on October 17 from 10 to 12. If people want to join they should call the library. Because of social distancing, we are limiting it to 20 people, and hopefully that will be some families who will come and help us.

A third thing we were doing is also exciting. Our archivist Rebecca Grabie has uploaded a lot of our historic documents to a website called New York Heritage (nyheritage.org) and there’s a special page of John Jermain Library history with some amazing photos of the early days of the library.

The library has now had a little more than four years in its renovated and expanded space. How is it working out?

It has been great, actually. I’ve been really grateful to this building, if that makes any sense. It was so flexible that when we came back in May and realized we needed to look at the delivery of physical services, we were able to really quickly — in-house, with our own staff — come up with a design that allowed for greater social distancing. We were able to move some stacks pretty easily to create separations. We were able to pull staff desks — where before they were clustered in a workroom — we were able to pull them out so they were more forward facing.

And the credit for that goes to our facilities manager, Richard Browning, who actually came in every single day during the lockdown to keep our systems running and wind our old clocks.

The other thing I have been really grateful for has been our external spaces— the garden areas and the plaza out front. Our wireless has been beefed up and it can be accessed from outside the building 24/7 so for a lot of people who are dealing with the realities of COVID-19, but may not have access to the internet, we are providing it even when we are not open.

The renovation project took a long time and involved more than a few delays and detours. Was it the hardest thing you’ve had to deal with in your years as director?

Not by a long shot. The building project was not without its challenges, of course, but there was a known end, a known destination. I think the community was so incredibly supportive, so all the delays and challenges just felt like part of this wonderful collaborative effort. In a weird way, it was not hard.

But dealing with some of the personal losses, dealing with COVID, dealing with a period of social unrest have been more difficult.

COVID-19 has disrupted our world. How has the library coped with the upheaval?

We have had three levels of response. Although we closed March 13, we were up and running with our digital library by Sunday, March 15. We responded to the fact our building was closed by beefing up our digital reach, having tutorials over the phone and online.

Second, we took the necessary steps to make it safe to offer appointment-based services Tuesdays through Saturdays, and third, we were we were able to circulate digital access kits with a Chromebook, internet hotspot, and mouse to people who didn’t have access to computers or wifi.

Do you see major changes in how the library operates in the future if the pandemic lingers?

I think we are providing services in response to what New York State is asking us to do. I hope we don’t have to deal with another total shutdown, but I think we have gotten a lot better at face-to-face, over Zoom, or over the phone in making sure the people who need us in any way are able to access the services we offer.

What would you say are the biggest changes in the way libraries have operated over the last 110 years?

I don’t feel the library has changed that much. I might be the only person who thinks that way. But if you go back to some of the library’s earliest documents and see what they were doing, what were their challenges? In 1918, they had a world war, followed by a flu pandemic. Then the Great Depression. Former directors were not using Zoom or computers, but they were concerned with reaching the entire community. The tools we use have changed, but the mission itself has remained unchanged.