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Libraries Contemplate Re-Opening

by on April 27, 2020

Months into the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that has cost thousands of lives and brought the world to a halt, public libraries are doing what we do best: looking toward the future we hope to build together. Facing a host of unknowns, library administrators are developing reopening plans as diverse as the communities they serve. Reopening will look different across the country, contingent on geography, funding structure and staffing, community needs, and the severity of the virus’ local impact. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges for even the most cautious library administrations. A lack of consensus among government officials adds to the confusion surrounding the disease and the best methods for containing its spread, complicating the task of spreading accurate information and making it difficult to establish a timeline for reopening. While many public libraries have disaster preparedness plans designed specifically to guide their actions in the face of a catastrophic event, these plans rarely account for reopening after long-term closures, because no library wants to imagine having to close its doors to the public it exists to serve. The added need to continue encouraging social distancing, even after library buildings have opened to the public, in the interest of public and staff safety, calls for detailed implementation strategies for reopening library facilities. From small community libraries to large urban centers, libraries are bringing their characteristic compassion and careful analysis to the task of reopening for service.

In Albany, New York, the capital of the state with the highest infection rate, Albany Public Library (APL) has a six-stage plan in place for its reopening. A guest lecturer at SUNY Albany’s College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security, and Cybersecurity (CEHC), Library Director Scott Jarzombek is uniquely equipped to lead in a time of crisis. By early March, APL already had its closure plan in place, which enabled administrators additional time to plan virtual operations and begin arranging reopening procedures.

The work libraries have done to prove we’re accessible far beyond the four walls of our buildings is demonstrably paying off during this crisis. During the closure, APL staff are staying busy by providing online programming and expanding access to WiFi to bridge the city’s digital divide. “Reopening is not flipping a switch,” Jarzombek explains, “It will be slowly adjusting a dial, and I say adjusting because there will be times we may need to go back to the previous setting. We turn it up and down, slowly, based on data and expertise.”

In a time of overwhelming uncertainty, Jarzombek emphasizes the need to view plans to reopen as works in progress, “We have learned that the situation is fluid and that any plan you make needs to be flexible. There is no quick return to normal because, for some time, normal will not be static. Nothing is set in stone; what life looks like after the final phase is still a question mark. I do think libraries will, at some point in the future, look like they did in February, but only if we, both our organizations and society as a whole, do this right.”

In San Francisco, one of the first cities to issue a shelter-in-place order, all 28 branches of the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) are closed indefinitely and staff are on paid furlough. As employees of the City and County of San Francisco, many library workers are being activated on a regular basis as Disaster Service Workers (DSWs) to perform a variety of functions – food pantry workers, contact tracing, cataloging of government documents, bilingual community outreach, among other assignments. Like APL, SFPL will take an incremental, phased approach to resumption of library services, with preliminary plans focusing on larger branches and equity zones, with an eye towards safety in the form of sneeze guards at public service desks and limited grab & go-style service to begin. “Our institutions will endure,” assures City Librarian Michael Lambert, “but library services will be different.”

Meanwhile, administrators at small libraries face big questions about how to enforce social distancing in spaces designed to be cozy and intimate. Jennifer Bruneau, Director of Massachusetts’ Boylston Public Library, says negotiating physical space is the biggest obstacle in their reopening process. “Before we shut down, we were bursting at the seams with patrons – our door count was increasing, our circulations were way up, and we were posting record attendance numbers at our programs every month.  Our library was recently renovated to maximize the use of space, however it’s still very small. Keeping my staff safe, as well as protecting my community from further spread of COVID-19, is my top priority.  Figuring out how to do that while resuming library services that are so badly needed in our area is going to be a  huge obstacle.”

Bookmobiles may be looking at longer closures than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, simply because mobile outreach and social distancing are fundamentally incompatible. “The very nature of traveling from one point in the community to another makes us a potential vector,” observes Chris Long, Manager of the Community Bookmobile for Frederick County (MD) Libraries, “so it’s going to be tricky.”

Public libraries of all kinds are facing unexpected challenges. Here are some questions for library leaders to consider while building plans to reopen.

When is the best time to reopen?
As we’ve seen from the debate over lifting restrictions on business operations, there is no prevailing consensus on the best time to reopen for business, and there are a multitude of rapidly developing factors at play. Just as most libraries look to local government partners and school districts for cues on weather-related closings, decisions surrounding reopening will necessarily be informed by the actions of other local organizations. Following the guidance of public health officials during this time is paramount, for the safety of staff and the public.

One option is to open library facilities for one essential service on a trial basis. Seattle Public Library, for example, is opening a limited number of its bathrooms for public use while the rest of its services remain on hold. This will enable the library to employ a skeleton crew of facilities and cleaning staff, while encouraging social distancing and still providing an essential service to the public. Opening up for select services, one at a time, also allows libraries to assess what works and what doesn’t in a more controlled environment.

How should services be modified to address the ongoing threat of infection?
If your biggest priority is reopening with minimal modifications to your normal service model, the best way to do that while encouraging social distancing may be to control the number of patrons in the library at a time. Retailers have done this especially well, so it is useful to look to supermarkets and other essential businesses for ideas. Walmart has reduced its capacity to roughly 20%, and other retailers have implemented social distancing markers, shopper limits, and other measures to encourage safe behavior in public.

Circulating materials can contribute to viral transmission because viral particles can survive on surfaces for a range of several hours. CDC epidemiologist David Berendes recommends leaving returned materials untouched for 24 hours, which will allow ample time for the virus to die and reduce the need to disinfect individual books. A one-day quarantine on materials means that loan periods should not be impacted substantially. Staff should continue to use best practices for cleaning and disinfecting circulating materials as a general precaution.

One of the hardest aspects of reopening in the age of social distancing will be the need to discourage patrons and staff from congregating unnecessarily. This may seem counterintuitive, as libraries are traditionally the place to go to kill some time with a good book, but the present situation calls for a temporary shift to a more transactional model. Consider instituting a temporary policy to control loitering, with plans to reassess as the situation develops.

What staffing considerations need to be made as we resume service?Libraries have to prioritize staff and public safety for the foreseeable future. This will undoubtedly impact how libraries are staffed and services provided.

In addition, budget challenges loom on the horizon. Many libraries rely on local government bodies for their funding. With revenues down, those libraries are bracing for future budget cuts and may have to make tough decisions about staffing. Already, some libraries have had to lay off valuable staff, and managers are faced with the task of reopening facilities with a significantly depleted workforce, at a time when it’s almost guaranteed that staff will need to take more sick leave than usual. Some library systems are considering consolidating staff around branches where the need is greatest for the time being, until their regular workforce can be replenished.

Building skill redundancy into your workforce is a great way to ensure resilience in times of crisis. While budget constraints can make it difficult to hire many employees with similar skillsets, making a point to assemble a team with complementary as well as overlapping skills is crucial to avoid fallout when one or more team members is absent or laid off. Additionally, using volunteer workers to supplement the work of paid employees can be useful when anticipating a rise in employee absences due to sick leave.

Make sure staff understand that social distancing practices apply to them as well as the public. Staff should not congregate in the library outside of their scheduled shift. Keeping track of which staff are in the building and when will help facilitate contact tracing in the event a staff member is infected. Some administrators are considering instituting temperature checks as an additional precaution.

What will happen to virtual services after the closure?
Creative programmers from public libraries across the country have developed innovative ways to keep their communities connected while staying apart. From Hip Hop DJ Livestreams to Quaranzines, from online storytimes to dial-a-story to virtual homework help, libraries are expanding remote access to their services and expertise. Acquisitions budgets for physical collections have been reallocated to beef up digital offerings as holds on e-books skyrocket. Remote access to online databases has expanded research capabilities beyond the library walls. Moving forward, libraries will need to weigh several factors in deciding whether to sustain these virtual offerings after regular service resumes.

  • Consider the ways in which offering services virtually will expand access for some patron populations, who may not otherwise have access.
  • Alternatively, consider the ways in which replacing an in-person service entirely with a virtual alternative could reduce access for patrons who are unable or prefer not to access the library digitally.
  • Expanding digital access to some library services will come at an additional cost. Consider whether the library can sustain this additional expense in the long term, or is it only feasible as a temporary measure.
  • Some services can easily be offered digitally, such as recording or livestreaming public programs, while others will require substantial staff time (which also constitutes an additional expense).

The Bottom Line
Above all, we must not lose sight of our priorities as a profession, and even with modified service structures, we can still uphold our core values of lifelong learning, equitable information access, and strength in community. In order to do this, we need to acknowledge some difficult new realities:

  • Our workforce will inevitably be impacted by this crisis. Keeping library staff members safe will be an ongoing challenge that we must prioritize in order to minimize that impact.
  • Students have lost valuable months of in-person schooling. Public libraries must continue to support students, educators, and parents, as we strive to prevent what R. David Lankes describes as “the summer slide [becoming] the pandemic avalanche.”
  • A national crisis replete with mass deaths, skyrocketing unemployment, and long-term isolation of individuals in their homes represents a collective trauma. It may be useful to revisit your library’s behavioral policies, keeping in mind that both staff and patrons will be operating at higher stress levels for a time. Learn more about the mental health consequences of COVID-19 and physical distancing here.
  • For the time being, libraries will need to strike a delicate balance between the free and open spaces we idealize and the social distancing practices we must enforce. As Jarzombek states, “Leadership will have to reassure everyone that the organization’s goal is to get back to the public library that we all knew and loved, but in the meantime, in order to continue to provide resources in the safest way possible, libraries will be more restrictive than they ever have been. I believe this will create an in-depth philosophical debate in the profession, and we will struggle balancing being responsible and adhering to our core values.“

Additional Resources:
Register here for DEMCO’s May 12 webinar, “COVID-19: Safety Tips for Reopening Your Library”

Learn about the IMLS-led project to develop guidelines for safe reopening and collections management in libraries and cultural institutions here.

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