Jazmine Adams-McNeal tried time and time again to explain to her young daughter why their weekly trips to the library stopped suddenly in March.
It didn’t go over well.
“It was a lot of meltdowns,” said Adams-McNeal, 31, of Ferguson, Missouri. She, her wife and their children – a 4-year-old girl and twin 2-year-old boys – are staples at their local library. “My daughter grew up at the library. We stay going to all the programs. Definitely the lap-times on Fridays.”
Amid all the talk of the country reopening, libraries across the nation are struggling to reopen their doors to communities that have come to rely on them not just for books, videos and reading hours, but also for an array of social services, from literacy programs, U.S. citizenship classes, housing and tax assistance and public bathrooms for the homeless.
Just 37% of libraries plan to reopen by July, according to a recently released survey from the American Library Association. Nearly half of the nation’s libraries – 47% – do not have plans to reopen their doors to the public anytime soon, according to the association, which surveyed 3,800 libraries from all 50 states in May.
Librarians and library patrons say it is an especially difficult time for libraries to be closed, with many school systems closed to students who might not have internet access at home and more than 44.2 million Americans filing jobless claims, many of whom would normally be able to seek assistance at their local library branch.
“We all think of nurses and doctors as the first responders during the pandemic. And I would say that that’s absolutely true. They are the first responders – on health,” said Susan Benton, head of the research-focused Urban Libraries Council. “Public libraries are the first responders on the recovery.”
More than just lending books, libraries have historically filled in the cracks of society, Benton said.
Library usage surged a decade ago during the Great Recession, according to the American Library Association, because of free public access to the Internet, computers, workforce training, education classes and social services.
But the coronavirus pandemic has cut off that resource for vulnerable populations who may need help at a time when the U.S. is now officially in a recession.
“Libraries are the most visited civic institution in the country,” said Tony Marx, president of New York City’s library. “And that’s because everyone uses the library. You know, whether you’re black or white, whether you’re red or blue, whether you’re rich or poor.”
What using the library during COVID may look like
The Urban Libraries Council, which serves as a think-tank for hundreds of libraries in metro areas, has been convening leaders since quarantines began months ago to come up with a game plan for this moment.
“You know what it’s appropriate for San Francisco may not at all be appropriate for Tucson, Arizona, or for Miami, Florida,” Benton said. “It really varies from locality to locality.”
Still, some best practices have emerged. Many libraries, like businesses and local and state governments, are following a phased approach.
The first phase is likely to be a restart of book lending that’s curbside or contactless. Next, there could be limited in-person browsing and building visits. Third, there will likely be more open access to visit, meet and congregate within buildings.
Most libraries say they’re planning to step up cleaning and require masks by staff and the public.
“I won’t pretend that we aren’t apprehensive about aspects of this. We are. But we have to bear in mind how much the library means to a number of people,” said Waller McGuire, CEO of St. Louis City Public Library. “I know that we’re not a hospital and we’re not a grocery, but we’re a vital service.”
St. Louis last week began allowing people to drop off library books they’ve had to hold onto for months because of stay-at-home orders.
Returned materials will be quarantined for 72 hours before being eligible to be re-lent, another practice many libraries said they’d adhere to.
By the middle of June, five of the St. Louis’ libraries will open portions of their buildings for limited browsing. Less than 20 people will be allowed inside at one time, and there will be a 15-minute limit.
“I know that everyone is anxious to return to a familiar, comfortable world, but we’re just not there yet,” McGuire said.
McGuire and others say they’re following the lead of their local governments. And they’re aware that this is an experiment.
“One of the things that I worry about is … that it’s possible that if infection rates start to grow, it’s possible we’ll have to close back down again,” he said.
Larger libraries will wait to reopen
Chicago also opened some of its libraries this week, requiring social distancing, masks and giving people time limits for computer use.
But many large library systems said they are still grappling with how to reopen safely, especially in communities that have seen high rates of coronavirus.
That’s true especially in New York City, home to the nation’s largest library system and the epicenter of the pandemic thus far. As of Thursday, New York City had seen more than 205,000 cases and 17, 255 confirmed deaths. More than 2 million people in the U.S. have contracted COVID-19 and 113,168 have died from it.
“We know that the reopening of this city is going to be way messier than closing. Lots of hard decisions, lots of risk assessment,” Marx said. “We have to go carefully with reopening to ensure the safety of our staff and of the public.”
New York, too, is likely to stick to a phased approach, Marx said, beginning with minimal-to-no-contact book pickups, possibly in July.
There is no timeline or date to allow wider public access to buildings yet, Marx said.
John F. Szabo, head of the Los Angeles Public Library system, said officials there are getting “close” to calling library staff back to work and launching some sort of curbside book lending.
“We’re not rushing anything. And we want to make certain that everything is in place and that it’s safe for both our staff and the public,” Szabo said. “But obviously, we’re eager to be of service.”
Digital demands surge
Library leaders stress that while their doors have remained shut, their services haven’t ceased during the lockdowns.
E-book and audio borrowing is up. Kids’ storytelling is still happening via livestreams and video conferencing. Libraries are even coming up with creative ways to hold social distancing and virtual summer camps for children.
“Since we’ve been closed, we’ve seen an 864% increase in people asking for library cards through our e-book app,” Marx said. “We’ve seen a 200% increase in new readers on our e-book platforms. I mean, we’ve got thousands of people going to webinars on how to save their businesses or start businesses.”
But that still leaves out those who can’t access or afford high-speed internet at home. And this digital divide adds to the urgency libraries feel to find solutions even if they can’t be fully open. St. Louis’ library, for example, bought hundreds of additional portable hot spots and laptops to lend out for the first time.
Many libraries kept their Wi-Fi on so people without broadband access at home could use their networks even if they couldn’t be in the building.
In St. Louis County, for example, leaders spent $6,300 on new equipment that would boost Wi-Fi signals. They also started giving away free meals, diapers, feminine products and books in their parking lots three times a week.
“They always are there for the community,” said Adams-McNeal, “So it was no big surprise to me.”
She said she’s been using the drive-thru giveaway weekly, partly to relieve the strain on her family’s budget. She also grabs extra meals for her neighbors, who are out of work because of the pandemic. Plus, it’s the only way her daughter gets to still see the library employees she misses.
Elsewhere, libraries are coming up with other creative ways to get services to people.
In San Antonio, officials are turning four vehicles into mobile hot spots that will be sent into targeted low-income neighborhoods where home broadband internet isn’t as prevalent.
San Antonio Public Library Director Ramiro Salazar said the city also plans to allow limited computer access at some branches, because it’s so important for people to have Internet access right now.
“I see libraries as the great equalizer,” Salazar said. “Especially during times of crisis, in times of hurricanes, floods, recessions, you name it. … We figure out a way to continue to serve.”
Library patrons, staff are eager and anxious about reopening
Elizabeth Dunnebacke says she and her family miss their local library terribly. But she’s also anxious.
New Orleans, where the 49-year-old lives, was one of the hardest hit in the early days of the pandemic.
“I would love for my kids to just be able to go over there, especially now that summer’s here,” Dunnebacke said. “It’s a safe indoor place that they can enjoy themselves. But I just don’t even know what that looks like right now in this post-COVID world.”
Dunnebacke said it seemed like libraries in New Orleans closed too late on March 16. Now she worries they could be opening too soon. She isn’t alone.
Library associate Erin Wilson and other colleagues who work at New Orleans’ public libraries have been back on the job for a couple weeks.
They’ve been less than impressed by the reopening plan. Libraries there are doing contactless lending for now, but Wilson said leadership has been vague about what comes next.
“The populace was being told that we would be open at 25% capacity,” Wilson said. “But for us, as the actual front-line staff enacting those plans, we really had no details. And we were told to all go have a meeting at our branch and that we would like figure it out.”
Wilson said workers at their branch decided on a staggered shift plan, and are now doing contactless lending. Wilson is sewing face masks for colleagues because there’s been a limited supply of personal protective equipment and cleaning materials handed out.
Wilson said they are envious of libraries that have published detailed plans.
“Other libraries have had phase one, two and three planned for weeks,” Wilson said. “It really makes me sad because I don’t have this job because it’s high paying. I don’t have this job because I’m trying to, like, do anything except serve the community.”