Library Buildings, Closed For Coronavirus, Volunteer for New Services

A handful of shuttered library buildings across the country are temporarily providing workspace that allows essential workers and services to properly social distance amid the COVID-19 crisis.

7 men wearing masks, seated or kneeling in library room, reading books
EOC workers at Anchorage Public Library's Loussac branch

A handful of shuttered library buildings across the country are temporarily providing workspace that allows essential workers and services to properly social distance amid the COVID-19 crisis. Struggling to stay apart in the early days of the pandemic, the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in the Municipality of Anchorage in Alaska turned to the library for help. “All of this moved really fast, as the pandemic grew and as Emergency Operations grew.... They couldn’t keep distance, so when they announced they might need a different kind of space the IT director for the city called and I said absolutely,” said Mary Jo Torgeson, director of the Anchorage Public Library. “We’re a community building, we’re a department in the city, and we have everything they needed to spread out. We have a shower, break room, we have multiple TVs and the wiring and the space. The space was the biggest deal. The space to spread out and keep them safe.” Torgeson said the library’s robust computer networks and Wi-Fi were also key.

About a week after Anchorage Public Library closed all branches, the EOC started moving into the Loussac branch downtown. Audrey Gray, public information officer for the Office of Emergency Management, said about 45–50 people are currently working out of the four-story building, but at one point nearly 60 reported to the site. Workers from various departments are using the space, including about half a dozen library staffers supporting the EOC effort.

Gray said the library setting has added a new perspective to her role. “In terms of public information, it’s nice to be in the library, where I’m constantly reminded of the different sectors of the community, from the children’s book sections to the multilingual publications...and the great depths and variety of books available. This helps me to remember who I am talking to and think harder how to effectively communicate with them.” At this point in time the library leadership is still determining when is best to reopen and are following guidelines set forth by the mayor. EOC will continue to use the building as long as needed. “While the physical buildings are closed, we’re open virtually, and it's something that we can do, allowing EOC to be there, to be part of the process of making sure our community is safe,” said Torgeson.

library with wall of bookshelves and bed
Public Library of Brookline with bed for firefighters

In Massachusetts, Brookline’s Main Library has answered the call from firefighters who also found themselves needing space to spread out. “The fire chief approached me and explained that the way the firehouses were set up and staffed they were really risking infecting each other. This one firehouse in particular had five cases very early on,” said Sara Slymon, director or the Public Library of Brookline. Those five firefighters are well now, and back at work. “The idea was to split them into two teams and they’d each have their own firehouse so they weren’t cross-contaminating each other.” The lower level of Brookline’s main branch turned out to be well-suited for the firefighters. “It’s a really good fit for them because we’re very close to their home firehouse, so it wasn’t going to give them delayed response times. Also I have two full kitchens and a shower here as well as several sinks for crafts...so they were able to meet all the needs they would have in a regular firehouse here. They’ve actually converted the tween room into a gym; they have a rowing machine, a workout weight bench, some kettlebells, and yoga mats in there. We do have TVs throughout this level and we have Nintendo switches, Xboxes, and PlayStations for them to use as well.”

The teen room serves as the firefighters’ command center and hangout zone. Their turnout gear is stored in the boiler room next to the teen room and their fire engine is parked in the library garage; when calls for help come in, they dispatch right from the library. “I was honored to be asked and so happy that they were able to provide the help. We have three big buildings sitting empty, so any way we can use them to be of service to the community to get us through this, I’m happy to do it,” said Slymon. Before the firefighters moved in, library staffers took home the library’s 3-D printers and sewing machines and have been using them to produce personal protective gear, which Slymon said have been delivered to local hospitals, first responders, and seniors.

In Washington state, shelters and warming centers in the city of Spokane found themselves needing more space for residents to properly socially distance. The Spokane Public Library was in a unique position to help: The main downtown branch was already closed since February for renovation work, and there was a window of time before construction was scheduled to start. “As we were looking for a way to meet the social distancing demands for shelter space in the community, I had suggested we look at the downtown library simply because one, we were moving out of that facility to prepare for a renovation this year and next, so it’d be easy for us to transition that space,” said Executive Director Andrew Chanse. “And two, it’s a facility that many...individuals who are experiencing homelessness are familiar with. So it seemed like a good match in a way that the library could step up in a time of crisis for our community.”

The library’s main floor was split up into two sections, one for adult men and women and the other for adult women only. Set up to accommodate 100 people, the site has been at 90 percent of capacity on a continual basis since it opened in late March, according to Kirstin Davis, communications manager for the City of Spokane. “One of the things we needed to provide...on the women’s side was showers. We were able to coordinate with plumbers from our Parks department and convert what was a men’s restroom into a sectioned off, four-stall shower for the women’s side of the facility. That was a really quick conversion that we were able to accomplish, and also provide plumbing and laundry facilities as well. All those things are very important when you're having overnight guests,” said Davis. “I think libraries, in general, at our best, get creative with the community—we get creative with the resources that are available for us to partner with,” said Chanse.


Kelli Brooks is a freelance writer living in California’s Bay Area.

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