The public library in Franklin has been loaning books for 230 years — the town boasts the first continuous public-lending library in the nation. It was founded in 1790 with a donation of books from Benjamin Franklin. But when the pandemic hit, like all other libraries in the state, the Franklin library closed its doors — leaving patrons like long-time resident Safdar Mahmud eagerly awaiting its return.

"I'm a teacher. ... So, for me, libraries are very important," Mahmud said. "Just to have the distinction of Franklin being one of those historical places — there's even books in there that were sent by [Benjamin] Franklin, and some of the original books going back to the early 1700s are actually housed in there.”

Now, the Franklin library is back — at least partially. Mahmud and his two children visited earlier this week to get books via curbside pickup, which is how many libraries in the state are operating these days. Under Phase 3 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan, libraries were permitted to reopen earlier this month. Some remain closed, others are open, and many are a hybrid. Keeping everyone safe is a challenge they all face.

Sarah Sogigian, executive director of the Massachusetts Library System — which represents 1,600 member libraries in the state — said libraries are slowly getting back to business after the pandemic stopped the distribution of 15 million books and other materials statewide. And every library is opening at its own pace, Sogigian said.

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Franklin Public Library patrons borrow books through curbside pickup during limited library hours during COVID-19 pandemic.
Marilyn Schairer WGBH News

But the underlying theme for re-opening libraries in Massachusetts reads more like a novel than a non-fiction book, with varying timelines and twists and turns on what people hope is a path back to normalcy.

Nora Blake, president of the Massachusetts Library Association, said one big concern is ensuring libraries are safely disinfecting and sanitizing books. With so much uncertainty around how long the virus remains on surfaces, people aren’t the only ones facing quarantine.

“I think what 100 percent of libraries are doing is quarantining materials," Blake said. “So, we'll put gloves on. We'll take all the materials out of our book return, and we will set them down somewhere and then we won't go near them again for at least three days.”

But 21st century libraries are no longer just about lending books. They’re lifelines for everyone from job hunters needing internet access, to parents needing a break.

Milton Public Library Director William Adamczyk said technology has allowed some library services in his community to continue uninterrupted.

"Even with our doors closed for the last quarter of the fiscal year, March through June,“ Adamczyk said, “we still had our Milton library users have over 53,000 digital checkouts, whether they're e-books or language learning or videos.”

Milton Public Library has kept many of its programs going during the pandemic. Things like children’s story hours and summer reading programs have continued virtually. But Adamczyk said one area most libraries are staying away from is public computers.

"We're not using computers, copiers or scanners at this point — anything that's really high-touch,” he said.

While the computers need to remain off, librarians are doing what they can to help job seekers and students who need internet access by continuing to offer wi-fi. Drive by a local library at any time of day, you’re likely to see cars in the parking lot and people accessing the internet from their front seats.

Milton Library patron Frank Schroth said that even during these “uncertain times,” and with most public libraries holding limited hours, he's grateful that libraries are slowly coming back.

"I was thrilled when they reopened for curbside pickup because then I could at least I could get books and magazines and movies and all the other things I loved again,” he said.

After a recent trip to her local library for curbside pickup, Sheila Pundit of Sudbury said her children were elated.

"They got out their cozy little bean bags and they just were pouring through each book just like it was precious treasure, because they hadn't had new books in like four months,” Pundit said.

In times like these, it’s a relief to open a book and escape for awhile. With public libraries reopening, that's a click, a phone call, or, sometimes, a curbside away.