As COVID-19 Threat Grows, Libraries Balance Patron Needs with Staff Safety and Containment

As recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19 across the country become common knowledge, public events have been canceled, public schools have closed, and calls for social distancing to flatten the curve have become the norm. But some libraries remain divided on whether to remain open but suspend public programming, outreach, or meeting room rentals; limit hours; or close entirely.

sign sayingAs recommendations to slow the spread of COVID-19 across the country become common knowledge, public events have been canceled, public schools have closed, and calls for social distancing to flatten the curve have become the norm. But some libraries remain divided on whether to remain open but suspend public programming, outreach, or meeting room rentals; limit hours; or close entirely.

The decision created ethical and equity issues as well as practical ones. Public libraries value social wellbeing, a critical concern during a national crisis, and many believed they were poised to step in to assist members of the public whose situations were exacerbated by the closing of schools and other services. New York’s Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) and Queens Public Library delayed the decision to close at the urging of Mayor Bill de Blasio, in order to continue to provide a social safety net.

Some library leaders and workers supported this stance. Throughout mid-March, however, the ethical implications of remaining open during a global health pandemic, when scientists and evidence from other countries undergoing similar challenges consistently recommended social distancing, took precedence. "It’s important to put a human face to this issue,” says Turner. “We are asking our staff members to put themselves on the front lines of this crisis.”

At Prince George's County Memorial Library System (PGCMLS), MD, which closed as of March 16, “Any staff who may have been exposed will receive paid administrative leave during the closure,” says Nicholas Brown, COO for communications and outreach. “Staff will be provided with paid administrative leave for any work days impacted by the closures. Staff designated as essential personnel in the Continuity of Operations plan will be required to telework.”

While many organizations advocated for working from home, as Rosenblum points out, it's not always practical. Until KCPL closed entirely, working remotely remained an issue of equity. “Our janitors, librarians, teachers, and others can't work from home,” she notes. “There needs to be a sensitivity for those of us who are on the front lines, and that includes libraries.”

Libraries embedded within a municipal or county system also needed to take into account the actions of other agencies. Kate Patterson, director of communications at SFPL, reports that library administration kept a close eye on action taken by the school district throughout early March, and had to coordinate with the entire city before making the decision to close.

The Darien Library, CT, made the decision to close on March 12, and within hours was joined by more than 40 other libraries. As of noon on Sunday, March 15, the number of closed libraries had ballooned to nearly 350, and continues to grow. Many of the nation's largest systems, such as the Los Angeles Public Library, Los Angeles County Public Library, San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County have closed. In Canada, the Toronto Public Library has closed through April 6, as directed by the County Health Department.

As libraries around the country announced closures through the end of March or longer—including New York Public Library (NYPL), which elected to shutter all branches from March 13–31, vowing to pay all of its employees for the duration—staff at BPL took to social media to air their anger at leadership of the Brooklyn and Queens systems for not following suit. At least one commenter on Twitter noted that both the Brooklyn and Queens systems rely more heavily on city funding than NYPL. As of Sunday, March 15, both Brooklyn and Queens announced that they would close as well.

Michael Sauers, director of technology at Do Space in Nebraska, and Julie Erickson, a learning specialist at Technology & Innovation in Education, have created a shared Google document, “Public Libraries Closed for COVID-19.”

The pandemic has raised many difficult questions, including thinking about how public librarians do their work. “We are hit hard by a crisis that impedes or does not lend itself to many of the ways that we work best, as is the case here,” says Turner. “Because we are to avoid as much contact as we can in order to limit the spread of the virus…that means our ability to do our best is challenged. As we move through these circumstances, we are focused on how we do our best with these constraints; and that work takes time.”



The origins of the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan led to racist suspicion and unfounded speculation about those from Asia or of Asian descent carrying the virus, compounded by false narratives propagated through social media to and even mainstream reporting. The Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) denounced the rise in racism and xenophobia during the outbreak. “Members of APALA, our library community, and the users we serve have reported a rise in racial discrimination, bigotry, and attacks aimed at people of Asian and Asian/Pacific American backgrounds due to fear, ignorance, and misinformation about the coronavirus,” the association says in a statement. It has created a pledge for library workers to sign and commit to combatting incidents of racism.

Before KCLS closed, Rosenblum addressed several racist complaints and comments from patrons. On its website, the library states clearly that COVID-19 is not connected to any race, nationality or ethnicity, and that “Stigma will not help fight the illness.” In Toronto, where racist incidents connected to COVID-19 have also occurred, Mayor John Tory and Eileen de Villa, the Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto, have been quick to speak out on the issue, according to City Librarian Vickery Bowles.

When the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) chose to cancel its Lunar New Year celebration at the end of January, the choice wasn’t because of fears of contamination, but out of respect for Chinese and Chinese American patrons. “A lot of us still have loved ones in China,” says Chief of Central Public Services Jennifer Chang. “Knowing that some of our families are trapped there, the community and [event] partners started raising the question of whether or not this is a celebratory time." FLP surveyed its partners—over the past 25 years, the Lunar New Year’s celebration has grown to include nearly 100 community participants—and all agreed that it would be appropriate to cancel the day of performance. Instead, FLP has put up an elaborate Chinese New Year display in the Parkway Central branch lobby, including long red streamers that represented prayers for people in China, in hopes “that everybody stays safe," says Chang.



The decision to suspend programs and operations has significant implications for patrons in many areas, which adds another layer of consideration to the decision to close. “Our city’s most vulnerable communities are the ones who need additional help during moments like these; our homeless and insecurely housed populations especially—daily readers, as we call them here at the Seattle Public Library, who seek refuge in our libraries, both from the elements and social issues outside,” says Turner. “These patrons seek warmth and safety, and they need information access too. Similarly, the city’s population of individuals experiencing mental and emotional issues or substance abuse issues. How we reach them and how we help them in moments like these is a concern.”

Since the first week of March, many libraries have partnered with local health providers and state agencies to offer informational programs for the public about COVID-19.

In New York, the Westchester Library System works with 38 libraries in Westchester County, the home of New Rochelle, where the first significant outbreak of COVID-19 on the East Coast occurred. Executive Director Terry Kirchner hosted an event bringing together service providers throughout the county. “It was led by two nonprofits—Nonprofit Westchester (NPW) and the United Way of Westchester and Putnam—so that all of these agencies could present a clear recommendation to the County for how to help nonprofits help those in need during this pandemic,” says Kirchner. “As the library system, we were able to provide a neutral, objective space for these agencies so that they could develop a clear, focused message.”

Libraries that have closed are promoting digital resources to communities, and many are investigating ways to provide virtual programming. “This is an opportunity to expand awareness of e-resources—but in doing so also remember that not all homes have access to the internet,” reminds Kirchner. “Try working with your local phone provider or another sponsor to provide free/low-cost hot spots to these households during this public health emergency.”

For libraries that remain open, best practices continue to be cancelling or delaying programs to promote social distancing. “It is a tricky balance to provide service while also making sure that we don't become a place to spread illness, especially if schools close,” says Julie Perrin, director of Jaffrey Public Library, NH, which serves a community of 5,500. “Two weeks ago, we removed all items not easily washed—like our puppets and puppet theatre—and took away the coffee and cocoa service, to reduce the number of cups sitting around and left for staff to clean up.”

At press time, the library had reduced hours to only two open days a week. This limited service allows people to check their email, a necessity for rural communities where broadband access is not widespread. Before moving to the reduced schedule, the library held a story time focused on handwashing, where toddlers washed rubber duckies to learn about good hygiene.



As information proliferated about how communities must act to counter the spread of COVID-19, libraries that had Continuity of Operations plans in place had guidance, but many were left scrambling. “An inclement weather policy doesn’t address all of the nuances of a health situation,” says Lomax. Library leadership was “relying on our collective bargaining agreement, our policies on illness, common sense, and assuming there may be situations where we may need to make exceptions.” Going forward, says Lomax, the library plans to update existing policies and create new ones.

United for Libraries suggests that all libraries have policies with clearly established criteria for closing the library, employee sick leave, payroll, banking and financial issues, and when and how people can work from home. The organization also recommends documenting procedures or providing cross-training to allow for the continuance of library operations when people are unable to come to work. United also supports policies addressing:

  • social distancing practices (removing chairs, limiting the number of people who visit at one time, removing coat racks, etc.)
  • criteria to suspend programs; cleaning methods, and defining the difference between cleaning, disinfecting, and sanitizing
  • setting a schedule to attend to the critical needs of the facility when closed for an extended period
  • a plan to continue services and to communicate to the public what services are still available
  • accommodating the needs of community members who may not have internet access, a home computer, or access to information

“PGCMLS maintains a Continuity of Operations Plan to ensure preparedness for any emergencies, whether related to public health, natural disasters, or other situations,” says Brown. “Our response is coordinated with the Office of the County Executive, Office of Emergency Management, Health Department, and an interagency task force that includes all county agencies.”

Rosenblum began developing a business continuity plan after the SARS outbreak. “It covers a number of disasters, including a pandemic,” she says. “We’ve been tweaking it as we go along. We’ve been relying upon it but are flexible about it.”

That flexibility is key. Lomax’s team began by thinking about possible scenarios, which proved helpful. But despite their efforts, there were many things that still needed to be addressed—including fiscal policies requiring board approval for large expenditures. In a time of social distancing and quarantining, what happens if you can’t convene a forum to make decisions? “You have to be flexible and responsive, make some decisions and take action without having all of the information you wish you had,” says Lomax. “We’ve been practicing that over the past few years.”



As of this writing, the United States is still in the early days of the pandemic. Messaging from the Trump administration has been inconsistent, leading to confusion about the crisis. Libraries are providing thoughtful, vetted health information to inform but not alarm the public. “From a social justice perspective, we can speak out on behalf of our community members who may face greater challenges during a public health crisis,” reminds Kirchner. “Where will our seniors who rely on libraries to provide social interaction go? What options will our patrons without home access to the Internet have to stay connected?”

Most libraries are waiving fees and extending due dates and using auto-renewal to relieve financial stressors. Digital services and e-content are available to those with Internet and devices. Some libraries, like PGCMLS, are sharing Wi-Fi hotspots so patrons who do not have internet service may continue to enjoy the library’s digital offerings. “Return boxes will be locked and not accept materials until closure has concluded,” says Brown. “If there is an extended system wide closure, remote programming will be considered.”

"At some point, some reflection on this event would be a great learning opportunity for other libraries to think about,” suggests SFPL’s Patterson. “This probably won't be the last pandemic we face in our lifetime…. So just looking at all the various factors in retrospect will be very informative.”

“Crises like these have personal and professional long-term impacts on our public, our city, and our institutions,” says Turner. “Throughout history, health crises have changed people and changed societies in unexpected ways.… It is what we choose to do with moments like these that matters most.”

Further coverage of this rapidly evolving story is in progress. To share how your library is coping with the coronavirus, email

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

Denise Morgan

Excellent and most comprehensive article.

Posted : Apr 02, 2020 07:23


I found this article to be quite informative and recommend that others read this and share the info with others.

Posted : Mar 24, 2020 05:00



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing