We know you miss being able to come into the library to browse, use our computers and study rooms, let your children play in our early childhood area, or just to sit and read. We miss seeing you, too!
Please read the information below for detailed information about the pandemic’s impact on libraries and the scope of the library services we have planned for the coming months.
Libraries That Have Reopened
In accordance with the state’s current guidelines for Public and Community Buildings, public libraries that have reopened their doors thus far are only able to welcome a small number of visitors at a time, usually by appointment. In-person use is restricted to a “grab and go” model. State guidelines specify that public institutions, such as libraries, must limit access to 5 people per 1,000 square feet of visitor-accessible space, and visits must be limited to no more than 30 minutes at a time. In addition, the guidelines indicate that public libraries should maintain a record of visitors, including contact information, for those who have prolonged contact with other visitors or staff. The CDC defines “prolonged contact” as 15 minutes or more.
The reason for these strict guidelines is that transmission rates for COVID-19 increase with the density and duration of exposure. Transmission of the virus by asymptomatic carriers is a real concern. Limiting the number of people in a building and the amount of time they spend there reduces the likelihood that any virus shed from an infected person can accumulate and infect others. In order to prevent people from lingering in their buildings, most public libraries have removed or blocked access to all their seating and tables, removed computer keyboards, and in some cases, have closed off access to bathrooms and water fountains.
Safe Handling of Library Materials
Recent studies have confirmed that the coronavirus is able to remain viable on paper and cardboard for up to 72 hours, and plastic for up to 96 hours. For this reason, libraries have been quarantining all returned materials for at least three days before making them available for other users to borrow. Those libraries that have reopened for browsing place any materials that are handled by visitors, but not borrowed, into quarantine for the required period of days–which makes those materials immediately unavailable for browsing or borrowing by other users.
What Would It Look Like If We Reopened Now?
Given the current guidelines, most of the things our users miss about coming into the library building would not be available if the library reopens any time soon. For Thomas Memorial Library, the state guidelines would allow no more than 8 visitors at a time for no more than 30 minutes each. Our staff would need to monitor the entrance and exits, enforce mask policy, obtain contact tracing information, and ensure that people arrive and leave in a timely fashion in order to let others enter the space. We would not provide any seating, children’s toys, puzzles, newspapers and magazines, study rooms, or computer use. Materials handled during browsing would become quarantined and unavailable to others. Without additional custodial support, we would not have the ability to disinfect our bathrooms multiple times a day in order to keep them safe for the public to use.
Our Current Services
In contrast, by offering our curbside pick-up service, we are able to check out materials to new users every 5 minutes during our curbside hours. We are able to provide personalized recommendations and book bundles selected by our librarians to our users. We offer the ability for our users to send us documents to be printed and picked up curbside. We are also able to continue to offer a robust array of virtual programs.
Since we began virtual programming in April, we have offered over 150 programs, with a combined attendance of over 3,000 people. If we were to shift our focus to reopening the building and allowing a limited number of users to come in for short periods of time, we would be forced to curtail our curbside and virtual services. Reopening at this point, therefore, would result in a decrease in our ability to serve the public in exchange for the very modest gain of allowing a limited number of people to browse in person.
How Is a Library Different from a Grocery Store?
We have heard people ask how libraries are different from grocery stores, which have continued to operate throughout the pandemic. There are many differences, but perhaps the most striking one is that libraries deal in shared resources. When you enter a grocery store, or any other retail establishment, you are not bringing back the things you purchased so that others can buy them. The retail experience is a one-way transaction (with the exception of returns, which are not allowed at most stores right now due to the pandemic.) The challenge of keeping shared materials safe for many users makes it difficult for libraries to operate in the same ways as grocery stores and other retail establishments. And, unlike grocery stores, many people enjoy hanging out at the library and just being in the space, which is one key service we would not be able to offer if we reopened right away.
What If I Want to Browse?
We know a lot of users miss being able to browse, and because of this we are continuing to add more ways for people to access our collection–especially our new books and movies–via our website, newsletter, and social media outlets.
We will continue to provide the best services we can in the safest manner possible as we weather the pandemic, and we look forward to welcoming you back through our doors when the public health situation improves to the point that it is safe to do so.