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Is COVID-19 Still Preventing Indoor Library Activities?

by on October 8, 2021

When COVID swept across the country last year, libraries closed their doors to the public. Programming for children, teens, and adults went virtual and for the most part was very successful. Over time as buildings opened and services were restored, one thing that remained off limits was indoor activities and events. However, with vaccination rates climbing over the summer, many libraries explored reintroducing indoor activities. How many have taken that next step?

A recent survey of Urban Library Council member libraries by this author showed that indoor activities are coming back strong. Many large library systems across the country are opening up their meeting rooms for staff led events. That being said, there are still lots of concerns. Out of the 66 libraries that responded to the survey, 28 had not started any indoor programming. One library system summed up the hesitancy as follows:

“Our rationale is partly low staffing, definitely that children are not vaccinated yet, and that we are working on getting the tech to succeed at hybrid activities. Our community is surging and the majority of our community are more reticent of in-person activities without a vaccine requirement which we have not enacted.”

Another library noted that they would consider restoring indoor events once the mask mandate is lifted in their community. In lieu of indoor activities, several libraries were offering “grab and go” crafts that could be used in conjunction with virtual activities. Another library system reported that there was “no significant pressure from the public yet to restart inside activities/events.”

One inhibiting factor regarding indoor activities was found in areas that saw a recent COVID-19 surge. As one director stated:

“We think we will begin them in January (original plan was November) … the COVID numbers are still higher now than they were last summer.”

Of the 38 libraries that had restored indoor activities, most resumed over the past summer. However, there is lots of variation among the libraries on the approach. One common choice was to only do activities for age groups eligible for the vaccine. Below is an example of one library’s experience.

“We started resumption of in-person programming with computer classes, and are slowly resuming other programs. We held two cultural events in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, one indoor and one outdoor this month. Story times and youth programming have not yet returned, as we monitor the Delta surge and access to vaccines for the school age population.”

Another director echoed the concern around children’s activities.

“Indoor programs for age 12 and under, particularly story times will unfortunately remain virtual until the situation improves.”

One director lamented how not having children’s activities changed the atmosphere in the library.

“It is so difficult NOT to have inside Library Learning Times for preschoolers. What a difference all of those visits, and the activity, and the community-building make in the library! We’re eager to resume that kind of activity.”

Another factor these libraries considered in making their decision was whether the public wanted indoor activities. One library responded:

“We’ve noticed that attendance at outdoor and virtual programs are still higher than our in-person ones.”

Many library systems shared that they were doing inside activities at limited attendance, often at 50% room capacity. One director stated that they made changes to the registration process for safety.

“We opened with limited attendance to start and required registration. This isn’t something we’ve done before and some patrons were confused by the process, but staff worked with patrons to help everyone get registered for the correct programs. We’ve expanded our attendance capacity, but are requiring facemasks for indoor programs at this point.”

Libraries offering indoor activities continue to monitor local COVID positivity rates. A surge could change their approach as one director commented.

“We are monitoring local public health announcements, and have a set of circumstances we are watching including criteria for moving back to fully virtual on a week by week basis. So far, we haven’t shifted any in-person events back to virtual.”

Outdoor activities were popular with this survey group, with 62 library systems holding them. This was especially done for children’s activities such as story times. Every library in the survey group was doing virtual activities.

No matter which choice each library made regarding their activities, all agreed that this year has been taxing. One library director summed up the situation frankly.

“Continuing many virtual and one-on-one offerings. Staff are tired and exhausted.”

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