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Libraries Strive to Stay ‘Community Living Rooms’ as They Reopen
The New York Times
New York, New York, USA
Elizabeth A. Harris
Date Published: 
Library, Libraries, COVID-19, Pandemic
Tapestry Statistics:
2020-06-23 23:25:09
2020-06-23 23:32:30
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Lyndon French for The New York Times
Safely lending books is just the beginning. Libraries are figuring out everything from how to remain welcoming spaces to how to respond to changing reader behavior.

In pockets of Virginia, Illinois, Missouri and Ohio, there are books sitting in quarantine.

They are public library books that have been returned, and then spend at least three days sitting on tables or in big metal carts, carefully labeled with the dates they came in. After that, they can they go back on the shelves.

Libraries around the country are tiptoeing toward reopening, but they’re not just trying to figure out how to safely lend out books. These are community hubs where parents bring their toddlers for story time, where people come to use the computer, where book groups meet. Now all of that has to be rethought.

“It’s awful because it’s the opposite of what we normally try to do,” said Karen Kleckner Keefe, the executive director of the Hinsdale Public Library just outside of Chicago. “We want to be the community living room, we want everyone to stay and get comfortable. And to design service to prevent lingering and talking is so different from everything we’ve been working toward.”

With their doors closed, libraries moved whatever they could online. Book clubs were held on Zoom. The Queens Public Library in New York changed a job-search training session to focus on online networking. Author events became virtual, too, which, while lacking an in-person touch, sometimes meant they could include special guests — Jean Becker, who edited a book about Barbara Bush, brought the former first lady’s son Neil Bush to a talk she gave for the Kansas City Public Library in April.

Branches around the country have also been offering curbside pickup, where books are left by the front door or dropped in the trunks of waiting cars, along with library catalogs and leaflets about their cleaning protocols. And even when the lights were off, many libraries kept their Wi-Fi humming so people park themselves outside and use it for free.

“We’re getting 500 visits a day,” said Anthony W. Marx, the president of the New York Public Library, which operates branches in Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island. “That means people are going out in a dangerous pandemic to sit in front of our libraries.”

The New York Public Library said it was hoping to start the process of opening in July with eight branches that will provide “grab-and-go” pickup service for books.

Joel Jones, deputy director of library services at the Kansas City Public Library, said he was especially concerned with getting vulnerable populations in the door first. He said his system expects to welcome their first visitors this month through referrals from organizations that work with people with mental illness or those experiencing poverty or homelessness.

They’re also thinking hard about what to do with their furniture, he said. They’re going to try setting up computers that have two monitors six feet apart, one for a library staff member and another for patrons who needs help printing or navigating the internet. The Kansas City North-East Branch was in the middle of a $4.5 million renovation when the country shut down. On a video conference call a few days later with their architects, Mr. Jones said, the library leadership looked at plans for the furniture and shelving and realized they needed to be redrawn.

“I’ve been looking at these plans for months,” Mr. Jones said. “But I looked at it that time and said, ‘This is not going to work.’”

One thing many librarians have noticed is changes in the reading patterns of their customers. Libby, an e-book lending app for libraries, saw a 51 percent increase in the checkout of e-books after shutdown orders were issued in mid-March. Ramiro Salazar, the president of the Public Library Association and the director of the San Antonio Public Library system, said that before the pandemic, the demand in his system was about 5 to 1 in favor of paper books, but he doesn’t expect that to come back.

“Users are being forced to turn to e-books,” he said. “What we don’t know is how many converts we’ll have.”

Even in places where libraries have reopened, things look different. Cari Dubiel, a librarian in Twinsburg, Ohio, said that her branch has been open to the public since May 20. But so far, the largest number of simultaneous visitors in the 45,000 square foot building has been roughly 30, she said. Under normal circumstances, their biggest clientele are parent