How and When Can Libraries Reopen?

- by Michael Stillman

Almost, if not all libraries have closed down because of the pandemic. The decision on one level may have been tough, but the reality is there was no choice. Safety had to come first. The American Library Association issued a recommendation on March 17 stating, “To protect library workers and their communities from exposure to COVID-19 in these unprecedented times, we strongly recommend that academic, public and school library leaders and their trustees and governing bodies evaluate closing libraries to the public and only reopening when guidance from public health officials indicates the risk from COVID-19 has significantly subsided.”


That was the easy part. What will be much harder to decide is when to reopen. Has the risk “significantly subsided?” Is that even the standard anymore? States and communities have been conducting phased, partial reopenings of businesses around America and other countries too, though it is at best unclear whether the risk has at all subsided, let alone significantly. Decisions to reopen appear to be being made based more on the devastating financial consequences of a long shut down than on the coronavirus having been defeated. As states and cities allow various businesses and public facilities to reopen, each library will likely have to make its own decision if and when to reopen and exactly how to do it.


We should note here that by “reopening” we mean physical reopening. Most have remained open online, and many, particularly large ones, increased these services. New York Public Library Chief Executive Officer Tony Marx noted on Influencers with Andy Serwer (Yahoo Finance interviews) that borrowings of e-books increased sevenfold after the library closed its doors. He also observed, “Opening is going to be a lot messier,” but that “we are going to be thoughtful and very careful.”


Some libraries have now reopened, at least partially, and others are considering when and how to do this. Each has its own plan, but the most common thread through all we have seen is that the reopenings will be phased. Almost no one appears to be simply throwing open the doors and resuming services as if nothing happened. The most minimal reopening is the library that has begun accepting returned books again, outside, in front of the library. This involves no new borrowing, simply taking returns. Next in line comes the library that is taking orders over the internet and allowing the patron to pick up the book at the library.


Others are letting patrons back inside again, but are applying the “restaurant solution.” This is one you see in some localities where restaurants are allowed to reopen, but may only seat 25% or some other percentage of their normal customers. In this case, libraries are removing or blocking off certain tables or seats so that patrons are kept separated by at least six feet. Others have used the “grocery store solution.” That is where they have special hours for at-risk patrons. Baton Rouge libraries are reserving the first hour of the day for those at risk.


Some libraries that have physically reopened are employing the temperature check. They have their electronic thermometer at the ready by the door and will only allow you in if your temperature is 98.6 or, perhaps, within a degree of that. Some have reopened but with shorter hours, and others require wearing masks.


For those libraries that do reopen, they then face the issue of keeping their space free from the virus. Librarians have become cleaners too. Cleaning can't be left to the night crew as every time a patron leaves, the table they were using, the chair on which they were seated, have to be cleaned with bleach or something else strong. Even the books themselves become an issue. Several libraries have already added quarantining of books along with cleaning them when returned to the library. In Charleston, South Carolina, returned books are put aside for three days before being reshelved. In Wheeling, West Virginia, they are a bit more conservative, quarantining returned books for four days before cleaning them and making them available to the public.


As New York Public CEO Tony Marx pointed out, reopening will be a lot messier than closing. Each library will have to find its own way as there is no manual for reopening a library closed by a pandemic. We are all trying to find our way through this great unknown.