When libraries began closing their buildings and transitioning to digital services in March of 2020, many library patrons were initially supportive. However, as the months go by, an increasing number of people are wondering why the libraries had to close while grocery stores could remain open. Aren’t libraries “essential,” too? However, I believe there are some key differences between retail stores and libraries that make library workers understandably reluctant to open their doors.
Library patrons tend to stay in the building for long periods of time.
When people go to the store, they typically walk in, get what they need, and leave. They are generally not in close contact with anyone for an extended period of time. In contrast, many library patrons stay in the library for hours, if not all day. Patrons who are homeless, for instance, will often arrive when the building opens and leave when it closes. Adults will spend hours using the computers, whether that means searching for and apply for jobs, watching YouTube videos, or playing a movie. Students will hang out after school for hours until their parents come pick them up. Schools remaining closed and going virtual would make it even more likely that a large number of students would be at the library all day, using it for free childcare or homework purposes, while their parents work.
Since we now have evidence that the coronavirus is primarily airborne, that it can stay in the air for up to three hours, and that it can potentially be spread by air conditioning, it is understandable that library employees would be concerned about opening their buildings. Even if they tell patrons they can only stay in the building for a short period of time, who is keeping track? And will a patron nicely get up and leave after an hour if, say, they are still in the middle of trying to apply for unemployment? It really does seem safer to keep offering curbside when possible.
Library materials get returned and used by different people.
Stores are a little different from libraries in that most people touch what they want, buy it, and keep it. Libraries, however, encourage browsing. They are also built on a model where a bunch of people share the same item. To account for this, libraries started quarantining returned materials, usually for three days, though I have friends who say their libraries will quarantine materials anywhere up to a week. New information, however, has led my library to start quarantining for four days instead of three. New studies tested glossy pages on things like board books and magazines, causing recommendations to change.
Libraries had to take time to consider how to handle issues like the safe return and circulation of materials. And they had to consider that our understanding of the science behind the virus is currently in flux. I think it is therefore valid that they would close their doors, if necessary, to keep the public safe while trying to figure out best new practices.
Libraries are communal spaces full of things patrons like to touch.
Libraries are basically built to be full of germs, if you think about it. Their whole purpose is to gather as many people as possible into the space and then encourage them to share equipment and resources. Libraries had to close to have time to do things like remove all their shared toys from the children’s play area, rearrange the furniture for social distancing, replace furniture with models that can be more easily cleaned, and so forth. They also need time to think about things like how public computers can be safely shared, if they can feasibly acquire enough cleaning wipes and hand sanitizer, and so forth. They also have to contend with the reality that, again, the virus is primarily airborne. Disinfecting surfaces and hands helps because people do have a tendency to want to touch their faces. But it is not really going to protect anyone from something floating about in the air.
It is not easy to rethink your entire business model in two weeks. I support libraries closing their buildings if it gives them the time they need to remodel for increased public safety. As libraries reopen, patrons may start to see new signage, sneeze guards, rearranged furniture, and more. That all takes time to put in place.
I admit that the closure of my public library has been difficult. The library is the main place where I acquire all the books I read and the movies I watch. Without it, I was left wondering how I was supposed to stay home and keep busy when I had few resources available to me. The e-books were not initially a help, since the waitlists on certain titles were reaching up to six months long. However, I don’t value my desire to read new releases or to watch movies as more important than the lives in my community. Keeping the library buildings closed helps protect not only the library employees, but also everyone who would naturally gather there, assuming it is safe to stay and browse or use the computer for hours, either because they do not see the pandemic as a real threat or because they that assume that, if the building is open, that must mean being there is safe. I am sad the library buildings are closed, of course, but I understand and support it.
What do you think? Should the library buildings have closed? Should they still be closed now?