Supervisory librarian sets up shadow puppets
Holly May, the supervisory librarian at USAG Benelux – Brussels in Zaventem, Belgium, sets up shadow puppets during story time July 26, 2021. (U.S. Army photo by Bryan Gatchell, USAG Benelux Public Affairs (Photo Credit: Bryan Gatchell) VIEW ORIGINAL

ZAVENTEM, Belgium – The library, an aphoristically quiet location, became yet quieter for the four branches at U.S. Army Garrison Benelux as pandemic prevention took priority over day-to-day operations.

Nevertheless, the library staff at the Chièvres Air Base, SHAPE and Brussels in Belgium and at JFC Brunssum in the Netherlands strived to not only connect their patrons to resources but to the communities the patrons live in.

The libraries on post are places newcomers sometimes visit as part of their in-processing, a place Families browse for books, videos and video games, where a high schooler can find books germane to an assigned research topic, where an employee can check out a tin for baking a cake for a going-away party. It can be a place where children can craft, where they can read through books without checking them out. The library is where a service member, trying to get a better understanding of the community, can check out French or Dutch language learning material or ask the staff for online learning resources. The libraries provide respites of quiet, study and reflection.

“That’s what’s so great about Army libraries,” said Holly May, the supervisory librarian at USAG Benelux – Brussels in Zaventem, Belgium. “We’re a third space. We’re not your home, we’re not your work. You don’t have to pay money to be here. You can come and exist in this space and the only resource that you have to give up is your time, just the time that you’re willing to come and exist in the library space.”

May joined the library team in the midst of the pandemic. As a civilian in the military community since 2003 who has undertaken many overseas permanent changes of station, she said her transition to Brussels during this time was the toughest PCS. Her staff ameliorated the difficulties of the move.

“One of the things that has really impressed me about the Brussels library staff that I was lucky to join is that they know the community,” she said. “They are part of the community. They know people by name. They know people’s reading and watching habits and listening habits. When patrons come in, staff are able to recommend different things. And by additional things, I don’t just mean library resources, I mean recommending places to go and visit, places in Brussels to go and see.”

For people staying at Chièvres Air Base lodge, often during in-processing while looking for housing off-post, the library is one of the convenient locations within walking distance. Lisa Steinacker, the director for SHAPE International Library and Chièvres Branch Library, outlined its convenient location as part of the Community Activity Center, which also houses the fitness center and the Bene Brew Café and Pub.

“It’s a great first stop for people that are in the lodge,” said Steinacker. “A lot of times we get a lot of people coming through during PCS season that are stuck in the Lodge, they don’t have a car, Family members. It’s a great place to come to get out of the room, to relax, to have something for your kids to do, to read something or to get away from the craziness of PCS.”

The Community Activity Center is also near the single service member barracks, so they often receive foot traffic from there as well.

Steinacker also credited the staff for providing “that smaller community feel.”

“Everybody knows each other there, which is always really fun.”

Steinacker also lauded the staff of the SHAPE library, who represent 10 different nations and collectively speak 16 different languages, an important asset at the multinational military complex.

“It is such an amazing experience for me personally to have the ability to work with and engage with so many people from so many different countries.”

The SHAPE International Library has two collections in one building. In part it is an American library like any other U.S. Army library. It is also funded by the analogous morale and welfare organization of SHAPE, and their stacks include sections in many of the different languages spoken throughout NATO. Besides French, Dutch and German, the official languages of Belgium, there are sections in Polish, Danish, Turkish, Hungarian and many others.

The staff has even produced videos in non-English languages as part of the outreach to their diverse patronage.

Steinacker said it has been challenging acquainting the on-base population at SHAPE with the diversity of languages the library accommodates.

The library at NATO Joint Forces Command Brunssum serves a similarly multinational population in addition to their U.S. Army patrons at USAG Benelux – Brunssum.

“If they have questions, they are always welcome to ask and we will always help as much as possible from our side,” said Susanne Schaefer, senior library technician and acting library director at the JFC Brunssum Library.

Much like the other libraries at USAG Benelux, the JFC Brunssum Library has found programming difficult during the times of COVID-19. In accord with the Dutch COVID-19 preventive measures current as of publication, events such as LEGO play must be limited to Families singly. Many of the crafts and instruction, such as the Valentines crafts, patrons can take away with them when they visit the library.

Schaefer looks to do more with programming once the public health situation improves and staffing increases at the library.

For the libraries across the garrison, the restrictions necessitated by the pandemic meant a pivot from physical to digital resources. Story times were done by online video as were some tutorials. The wealth of ebooks, online audio books, subscription tutorial services, language training and more were being increasingly used during the first months of the pandemic.

“A lot of our content is already virtual,” said Steinacker. “A lot of people don’t realize that, and so it was a great opportunity for us to push our online content, because that’s all they had.”

Steinacker also praised library technician Dan O’Reilly at the Chièvres library for his ability to conduct story times.

“Dan is a trained musician,” she said. “He just brings amazing light to story time that us non-musicians are always envious of. He plays the piano. The kids just adore him. He’s just a great storyteller.”

May also recounted he boom of use of online resources. She also recounted that there had been a downside noticeable at the local and Army-wide library levels.

“All interactions were shifting to virtual, people were still isolating in their homes, and although … virtual meeting spaces you’re using are a good tool, it is not a good substitute for actual human interaction,” said May. “Some programs have continued to be successful virtually. What I would say I see as a librarian is that people are even more so than before COVID really seeking human interaction.”

Library technician arranges ax-throwing art at gazebo
Deborah Goldfein, library technician at USAG Benelux – Brussels in Zaventem, Belgium, rearranges ax-throwing art at the parking lot gazebo July 29, 2021, as part of the library's outreach program. (U.S. Army photo by Bryan Gatchell, USAG Benelux Public Affairs) (Photo Credit: Bryan Gatchell) VIEW ORIGINAL

As COVID-19 case numbers dropped in Belgium following the widespread implementation of vaccinations in 2021, May and her staff worked on making the library’s presence better known within the Brussels community. The library is on the second floor (first floor by European reckoning) of Bldg. 4 and is only accessible by elevator, making it difficult to find unless you intended to visit. During the summer the staff would hold crafting events at the main outdoor parking lot gazebo, with patrons throwing paint-dipped sponge axes or other fun events. May and staff would host some of these outdoor events on Thursday when a popular food vendor was on-hand. Hungry food patrons waiting for fish and chips would then spend time with the library staff, gaining the library visibility.

“We signed up a lot of people based on that,” said May. “We pounced on them.”

For the SHAPE International Library, COVID-19 preventive measures meant that programming events that might have been daylong and attract a crowd of 200 now became monthlong so crowd sizes would be smaller.

As the libraries look into the future, they look on some of the lessons learned since 2020.

“It really has opened our eyes to what we can do in the future and what we should be doing as far as doing a lot more content online,” said Steinacker. “So we continue to work on creating more tutorials in different languages, because that really seems to be a hit.”

The SHAPE Library is opening a Maker Space so patrons can do many do-it-yourself projects using a 3D printer, circuit makers, robotics and wood burning kits. Steinacker is looking for volunteers who are willing to share their time and expertise.

“There will be a lot of opportunities for volunteering at a library,” she said.

The Brussels Library is currently undergoing some renovations, including painting and recarpeting. May and staff are looking at what arts and crafts projects they can learn well enough to teach, things like making block prints. May emphasized that some of these crafts are aimed toward adult learners as well as children.

“We’re trying to make it cool,” said May. “We’re trying to bring a little bit of creative play as a kind of emotional and mental outlet and to connect people with each other.”

Steinacker recognizes one important factor in the future of the library program throughout the garrison.

“It’s not our library, it’s your library,” said Steinacker. “You need to come in, you need to tell us the things you want to see in your library – the programs you want to see. It’s a two-way street. So we really want that engagement, otherwise we just get the things we think that you’ll like.”