Richard Fortin, director of Bailey Public Library in Winthrop, leads a discussion Nov. 25 during an online meeting of the library’s movie club. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

WINTHROP — The COVID-19 pandemic has changed social interaction in major ways, but staff members at Bailey Public Library in Winthrop have used technology to bridge the distances between patrons.

Programs at the library, especially the movie club, have participants looking forward to spirited discussions with others.

Some participants say it has made the pandemic bearable, given the absence of social activities.

One of library’s patrons, Lottie Carlson, who described herself as older than 90, is part of the movie club, which operates much like a book club, but with a film selected by members of the library staff. At regular meetings, Carlson and others discuss and debate movies and their themes.

Carlson said recently the movie club was discussing “The Florida Project,” a critically acclaimed, 2017 film starring Willem Dafoe.

Carlson said movies today are different from those with which she grew up, but said “The Florida Project” was one of her favorites the group has watched during the pandemic.

“I don’t do professional critique,” Carlson said. “That latest movie is really considered a really good piece of art.”

Carlson described the coronavirus pandemic as a cloud over people, and said the movie club helps provide social interaction at a time when people have little option but to isolate.

“We’re together, but virtually together,” she said. “I think it’s a wonderful opportunity, and I wouldn’t think of missing it.”

Library Director Richard Fortin said it has always focused on the community, and that has only increased during the pandemic.

Fortin said the library had invested in technology before the pandemic, putting it in good position to interact virtually with patrons.

“My goal was that we’re not going to stay closed. We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” Fortin said. “People felt isolated and alone there for a while, and I think they still do. And we realized that it was an immediate need.”

Richard Fortin, director of Bailey Public Library in Winthrop, leads a discussion Nov. 25 during an online meeting of the library’s movie club. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Fortin said the library began holding virtual meetings for summer reading, and set up different services to assist them, including Kanopy, an online video streaming platform that allows users to access content from home.

“The goal for them was to stay connected,” he said, “and use the library without leaving their house.”

Mike Levey, 76 and also a member of the movie watching group, said he wished more people would join the library, describing it as “a terrific resource.”

“It’s nice to have someone telling me what to do. It adds a little structure to my life,” he said. “We don’t go to people’s houses for dinner. We don’t go shopping in stores a lot. I very much look forward to these.”

Levey said he would have never thought to see “The Florida Project,” but described it as “absolutely spectacular.”

Club member Laurie Graves, 63, said the movies are usually “quite challenging,” and not every member of the group likes every film. Every film, however, produces stimulating discussion.

“By the end of the discussion, we all feel illuminated in ways we weren’t before,” she said. “Even the people who don’t like the movies, they say some very interesting things, too.”

Graves said the regular discussions help make the COVID-19 pandemic bearable.

Before the pandemic, Fortin said, about 80% of the library’s digital borrowing was done by senior citizens, and mostly younger families were visiting the library in person.

Not surprisingly, digital borrowing during the pandemic is up from 200 units a month to 600 units, according to Fortin.

Total lending at the library has reached 3,500 units over the past two months, and 600 people have “attended” virtual events.

“The first few months (of the pandemic), there was a barrier of mental habits we had,” Fortin said. “People weren’t used to the idea” of virtual events.

“Most of us are taking (the pandemic) very seriously and are not going out to our social outlets,” he said. “It really gives you a way to interact with people. I think these things are really important in this time.”

Carlson said it would be better to visit others in person — without having to wear protective masks or fear illness. The threat of COVID-19 infection, however, makes virtual events important alternatives.

“I think that our governor has done the best she could to handle this, and I get the impression that it’s better to not be (out),” Carlson said. “It’s always nice to be right there and grab them by the arm, but (COVID-19) is a very serious infection.”

Fortin said he expected to continue the virtual clubs, events and other web-based programs after the pandemic, including an online tool where library users can complete a survey of books they have read. Librarians then use that information to assemble other books for the patrons to pick up.

“Even when we go back to whatever you call ‘normal,'” Fortin said, “some of this stuff is so convenient that it’s probably here to stay.”

Along with the movie club, Bailey Public Library offers several other clubs. For information, visit baileylibrary.org.

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