Reopening Libraries: Public Libraries Keep Their Options Open

How do you reopen a library with no guidelines or best practices to work from? That’s the question public leaders and staff are considering as library buildings gradually open across the country.

As stay-at-home orders are lifted, public libraries must consider their reopening strategy—without the benefit of a playbook

How do you reopen a library with no guidelines or best practices to work from? That’s the question public leaders and staff are considering as library buildings gradually open across the country. Library workers returning to their facilities are doing so during a social justice and public health crisis—steeling themselves to serve on the front lines of a changed landscape, planning responses and policies to deal with members of the public who may be unwilling to wear masks or participate in health precautions.

Despite the many challenges, library workers are eager to reconnect with their patrons. Some are starting with no-contact service. Others have set time limits for customers to enter buildings and use computers. All are figuring out ways to balance a deep commitment to serving their communities with keeping staff and patrons healthy.


Illustration ©Benedetto Cristofani/Salzmanart


Personal protective equipment (PPE), signage, sneeze guards, and gallons of hand sanitizer—these are the basics of library safety measures. “It’s about creating a balance,” says Pam Sandlian Smith, director of Anythink Libraries in Adams County, CO. “At some point in time, you do all you can to mitigate risk to provide the safest, cleanest environment possible. You just have to say, ‘We’re going to jump off the cliff,’ and go.”

In New Mexico, state librarian Eli Guinee works with 100 public libraries and 19 tribal libraries. “The libraries that have been most successful have been a part of local emergency committees since before the pandemic began,” he says. “So much of resilience is having those networks in place. If you wait until a pandemic to build community partnerships, it's going to be a challenge.”

New Mexico libraries are coordinating with fire departments to source PPE and with local distillers who adjusted their operations to manufacture hand sanitizer. Although he had to close the state’s public research library and bookmobiles, Guinee expanded services from the Libraries to the Blind. The New Mexico State Library also mapped public library Wi-Fi hotspots throughout the state and is looking into the possibility of providing satellite internet to communities without broadband through its bookmobiles.

Amber Mathewson, the director of the Pima County Public Library, AZ, has 26 branches spread across 9,200 square miles. She leveraged county emergency procurement procedures to purchase personal protective equipment and cleaning products—including face masks for the public. To prepare for limited services on May 18, her staff made additional masks and used the library’s 3-D printers to create comfort clips. Hand sanitizing stations are available throughout the building. 

The library is limiting the number of people who can be in the building. In addition to picking up holds, patrons can use computers, plus print, copy, and fax. All visitors will have their temperatures checked—those registering 100.4 degrees or higher will be asked to return later.

In Ohio, the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) reopened June 1. The library’s cleaning company secured supplies, including masks made using specifications from the Cleveland Clinic. Disinfectant wipes remain elusive, so Executive Director Tracy Strobel says that staff will use paper towels and spray bottles.

With more than 400,000 items checked out before the pandemic, “the logistics of getting everything back keeps me up at night,” says Strobel. The library will quarantine all materials for 72 hours. Eleven of the library’s branches have drive-up book returns and windows, allowing for no-contact service. Another two branches will provide curbside pickup, which Strobel will continue until limited visits to the library are instituted sometime in July. Her plans depend on county and health department guidance to determine the new occupancy rates for buildings.

The Gray Public Library in Maine has been open for curbside and browsing since May 5. Director Josh Tiffany received PPE from the town and installed a plexiglass shield at the circulation desk. Local business New Balance donated masks. Browsers in the building are required to wear masks; those who decline may use the library’s curbside service. Inside, people return materials to a designated table rather than directly to the shelf. Tiffany has removed some seating to limit time in the library and promote social distancing. “What works here may not work for everyone else,” he notes. “We’re more rural than urban, we don't have a large homeless population, and we're well funded for our size.”

Despite reduced hours, the library has been busy, and is reaping the benefit of a previous renovation. “In our expansion, we had a loading dock installed,” explains Tiffany. “We have people come to the loading dock, where we put the bags [of library materials] down. They don't get out of the car until we go back in the building—it's a completely touchless interaction.” He reports that for each person who uses curbside service, 10 come into the library to browse.

PLAYING IT SAFE Libraries have instituted a range of safety measures to minimize contact. Top: Arapahoe Public Library’s Park and Pickup service at the Koelbel Library’s parking lot; bottom: plexiglass protection installed at the Gray Public Library’s circ desk. Top photo courtesy of Arapahoe Libraries; bottom photo by Josh Tiffany


Not all libraries have the luxury of deciding when to reopen. “The most anxiety has been in communities where the community leaders want the library to open before the library is ready to,” says Guinee.

St. Joseph Public Library, MO, opened its four branches on May 7 in response to community pressure. Workers returned three days earlier, preparing for contactless service. “We’re a hotbed because we’ve got a pork plant [in town], which is adding about 20 [COVID-19] cases each day right now,” explains Director Mary Beth Revels.

Although all 58 library workers have homemade, cloth masks, most patrons do not. “In Missouri, not even half of people wear masks,” says Revels, who insists on and provides paper masks to customers who want to use computers—especially for one-on-one help. The reluctance of the public to use masks has staff on edge, so Revels has installed plexiglass at the circulation desk. She’s working with the library board to follow guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control, planning to wait on expanding services until there have been no new infections in the community for 14 days.

In the meantime, patrons can browse for 20 minutes, spend 30 minutes at a computer, or make arrangements for remote printing. For now, all library programming remains virtual, and public meeting rooms are closed.

The Arapahoe Libraries began no-contact service on June 1. “We have recommendations from the state around wearing masks, but no state policy,” says Executive Director Oliver Sanidas. Although the library does not have a policy requiring patrons to wear masks, it will provide paper masks to visitors.

Linda Speas, Arapahoe Libraries director of operations, began working on the library’s reopening plan when it closed in March. It will start with curbside pickup by appointment. Patrons will arrive at a designated parking spot, where staff place checked out materials into cars. To ensure equitable service, the library is also providing home delivery and delivery by mail.

Meanwhile, new signage is springing up inside the buildings, including floor markings designating traffic patterns. Speas, like Tiffany and Revels, has moved the furniture in public areas to promote social distancing.

Can public health be fashion? Arapahoe and Anythink Libraries think so and are creating branded face masks for library staff. Sanidas believes this approach may appeal to patrons and possibly encourage mask-wearing.



A lack of clear guidance on the national, state, and local level has led to confusion about handling materials. Libraries are making educated guesses, allowing for anywhere from 24 to 96 hours for quarantine. Speas, who began accepting returns on May 26, plans to quarantine materials for 72 hours, manually sorting them into bins instead of using the mechanical sorter. All bins are stored in unused meeting rooms. Each container is dated and checked in after the quarantine period ends. Speas ordered additional bins to minimize the number of times staff have to touch materials.

Revels quarantines items for four days, allowing people to return items through the library’s book drops or a designated indoor area. Workers will not be wiping items down, which would add to an already heavy workload.

As buildings reopen, workers are returning to new spaces, protocols, and procedures with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Frontline staff members are concerned about infection, community health and safety, and job stability. But bringing the public back in can also be powerful, reminds Tiffany, who had people checking out material within five minutes of opening. “It's nice to actually go through the experience of being open, rather than being at home and feeling fearful,” he says.

DRIVE ON UP Curbside contactless materials delivery at St. Joseph Public Library, MO. Photo by Mary Beth Revels

“We decided the very first week that we were going to overcommunicate,” says Guinee. He began holding office hours, which morphed into daily drop-in sessions. “We haven't had a lot of answers to questions, but we've been helping people think through possible scenarios for reopening and do some proactive planning, even though we don't know what the future is,” says Guinee. He’s hosted virtual programs about updating policies and offers one-on-one video or phone chats to help work through stressful local situations. “We're going to come out of this much stronger, with a greater capacity—even with decreased budgets—because we've used this time to build up partnerships,” he adds.

“We communicated early with our Mayor's office about our pandemic response and reopening plans,” says Kim Porter, director of the Batesville Memorial Public Library, IN. She submitted plans to the Board of Health, which made suggestions before approving the library’s June 1 opening. Porter has been in constant contact with her staff, “to acknowledge their fears and work together to address them.”

“We’re summoning our inner Zen,” says Sandlian Smith. “When we closed down, we established some basic operating guidelines around how we would make decisions [and] what our priorities were, and made sure our staff felt as secure and supported as possible.” She encouraged professional development while the libraries were closed, providing subscriptions to Masterclass, and launched an Eagerness to Learn initiative. Sandlian Smith wanted staff “to be flexible and fluid” going forward. “We're going to be thoughtful, intentional, and we're going to take care of you as much as we possibly can,” she told them.

Concerned with the health of vulnerable employees, Revels is limiting who works with the public. Everyone continues to work from home at least one day a week to take a break from the stress of customer-facing service during a public health pandemic.

Mathewson agrees that both internal and external communication is key to a successful reopening. “I believe that attention to staff feedback and concerns should be weighed heavily,” she says. “After all, these are the people on the front lines, serving our community day after day. Their concerns and ideas can be instrumental in boosting morale and creating a new way of doing things that people can get behind.”

Many libraries are responding to social distancing requirements with staggered work schedules, both to comply with public health concerns and provide additional break time for workers. Speas and her team are allowing only one staff member in the break room at a time, so that they may remove their masks. “We immediately learned how challenging it could be to wear masks for many hours,” says Speas. 

The library’s human resources department provided webinars for staff on mindfulness, mental health, and stress. As the library begins to reopen, Speas is figuring out how to distribute 325 staff throughout the library’s eight public-facing branches while not having more than four workers in any one area.

“People want to know that we’ve planned for everything and have processes in place,” says Strobel. “Having solid communications and a great foundational relationship with our workforce—having trust built up—has gone a long way in terms of maintaining staff morale and loyalty,” she notes. “People are very understanding of the challenges leadership has and are trusting that we'll make the right decisions on their behalf.”

In May, CCPL saw a 35 percent reduction in funding over the previous 12 months. To preserve jobs, the library began participating in the Shared Work Ohio initiative. “We can reduce our [hours] up to 50 percent, and apply for unemployment benefits for the other 50 percent, and staff qualifies for the Cares Act,” Strobel explains. “Five hundred and fifty people did that—including me.” By doing so, the library has managed to save $2 million in payroll costs for May and June.



While considering how to reopen, public libraries also have to address the inequities that been exacerbated by the pandemic, including social injustice, systemic racism, and economic devastation. Plans made six months ago now seem quaint. There's a lot to do. The best place to begin, as Guinee says, is to “Approach your work with humility.”

Virtual programming has boomed but highlighted digital inequity. “Policymakers and citizens on the street have heard a lot more and gained a better understanding of the big picture,” says Timothy Cherubini, executive director of Chief Officers of State Library Agencies (COSLA). Sanidas began offering mail and home service delivery to address the issue, but points out once libraries do so, they can’t stop. 

Speas is anticipating a demand for workforce development and unemployment assistance. The library has a social worker on staff “to connect patrons with mental health and other resources.”

As library buildings reopen and services resume, “communities will feel a tremendous sense of relief,” predicts Guinee. “The symbolic value of the bookmobile returning will be high—it represents a connection to the wider world and a sense of recurring normalcy.” The challenge, he says, is to welcome patrons while maintaining health social distancing boundaries.

Libraries play a critical role in building future resilience, by “supporting local economies, rebuilding the local business ecosystem more sustainably, developing shared values and community priorities,” he adds. “There are so many forces seeking to take old divisions and move people even farther apart. There's not any other institution like public libraries that can reach across the divide and bring people together to talk about shared priorities and shared community values.”

For those anxious about opening, “Don’t assume you can think of everything,” reminds Guinee. “You’re going to have blind spots. If possible, have an outside person do a safety audit of your building.”

“This is a scary time, and I would not be honest if I didn’t say we have to be brave and have courage,” says Sandlian Smith.


Erica Freudenberger is outreach consultant, Southern Adirondack Library System, Saratoga Springs, NY, and a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker.

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