Should Public Libraries Close Their Buildings During the Covid-19 Pandemic? I Think So.

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.

Conclusion

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?

41 thoughts on “Should Public Libraries Close Their Buildings During the Covid-19 Pandemic? I Think So.

  1. Isobel Necessary says:

    Lots to think about here! I agree that public health is really important, and that a place designed to circulate physical objects (ones which cannot be easily cleaned with liquids or at high temperatures) is far from ideal for preventing transmission of the virus. However, library closures really sadden me. As you’ve noted, libraries are about more than books – they provide services and a safe space to vulnerable and disadvantaged people. With an unemployment crisis looming as many businesses are affected by the pandemic, there will be many people searching for work. Those who would used the library to do so won’t have that option. On another note, library books can be an environmentally sound choice because the carbon footprint of a book’s production can be spread between many readers, who might otherwise have bought their own new copy even to read it once. The financial cost to individuals is also reduced, making knowledge and culture available to poorer people. We know that being read to as a child is a predictor of academic success, so facilitating this for families of all backgrounds is really important. I hope creative solutions can be found to these problems while still reducing transmission risks (and that where these solutions require funding, it can be found).
    Sorry for this wall of text and thanks for posting!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      You raise very good points! I think libraries have been doing their best to be creative and flexible by expanding online services and offering services like curbside delivery. However, those services admittedly benefit mostly people who are already somewhat privileged–they have access to internet and reliable transportation.

      On the other hand, I’m not sure how many people would have pivoted to buying their own books during the pandemic especially because so many people lost their jobs. It would be a time, I think, when they would really be wishing for the library to be reopened because, as you mentioned, the library tends to be needed particularly in times of economic crisis.

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  2. BookishBrooklyn says:

    It’s interesting isn’t it? When we were facing lockdown we closed to the public but offered a click and collect service, so we’d bring people their Library items at the door. Though we’d mandatory quarantine them for 3 days so people would get them germless, and we wouldn’t put returns back out until after a certain period, too.

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  3. jarilissima says:

    I’ve been using my local library’s digital service for years now, and I am very happy with it! It might be different physically, but in the end you are still reading your favorite books 🙂 It made sense for ours to close. They seem already understaffed (small town) and the librarians / volunteers would probably spend most of the time cleaning and disinfecting.

    Digital library takes getting used to, but it works great! I put books on hold and when they are available, it’s like Christmas Hahaha

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      The ebooks have been really great during this time! Sadly, however, they do not seem to be purchasing the new releases I’ve been waiting for. Even when I put in purchase requests. And the waitlists have been very long. I understand ebook pricing is outrageous and they don’t want to sink their whole budget into the digital services, but I will still be happy when I can get my hands on some physical books!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. mphtheatregirl says:

    Some libraries are used for election spaces- so what happens in those times in the middle of a pandemic.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      My old polling place was at the library, but it was in a conference room that had an external door (you did not need to go into the library to get into the room), and of course all the workers were polling employees and not librarians. My guess is that it will still be open this year if there are in-person elections. Even other libraries will probably be ok with being a polling location since it doesn’t mean the library itself is actually open and no library workers will need to be in the building at that time.

      Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think it would vary by location. Some states allowed mail-in voting, so it wouldn’t matter. Other libraries are open now, so it again probably wouldn’t matter. Other places would likely just assign a different polling location.

      Like

  5. lucindablogs says:

    I work in a community library which is volunteer run and led. One of our big problems is getting the volunteers back to staff shifts, especially as they’ll all need retraining on new procedures, additional cleaning etc. For many people, especially those who are older or with underlying health conditions (most of our volunteer base) they still don’t feel safe to be in such a public facing role. It’s so hard because we usually actively encourage our users to come in, browse, have a coffee etc. and now the message will have to be “get your books as fast as possible, don’t touch anything and leave”.

    There’s also the issue of funding – we essentially pay our bills through events – all of which have been cancelled. The future is so uncertain, it’s such a difficult time for libraries right now.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a really good point! A lot of the library staff I know are always older and presumably would not feel comfortable returning to a building open to the public. I think if they can continue to work from home, they should be allowed to do so. However, as you note, funding tends to be a big issue for libraries. I think the libraries with the least funding have often been the quickest to try to reopen.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    My library is open for browsing only (no programs or computers or sitting around), and you can only be in the building half an hour. I agree the problem is enforcing that. If you tell someone 30 minutes are up and they need to leave and they don’t, what do you do?

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I guess you have to do what you normally would and, as a last resort, contact the police to escort out a troublesome patron. But I don’t think library staff are looking forward to these types of encounters. Are they really going to call in backup to escort out, say, a woman trying to finish her career test or something?

      Like

      • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

        I know there are some people who probably DO want the library to open so they can sit there for hours and attend programs that take hours, etc., but I wonder if some of “the libraries should open!” chorus comes from people, once again, not realizing how libraries are used. Like, if you are a person who goes in for half an hour, grabs books, and leaves and you think this is what everyone does, then of course opening the library doesn’t seem that weird to you.

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        • Krysta says:

          I do think a lot of the people who want the library open envision it as mainly a place to grab materials and go, but people use the library in all sorts of ways. And the staff have to account for that. Especially with schools going virtually, they will have to figure out what to do with kids whose parents drop them off while they work, or kids who need the internet for homework. Homeless individuals trying to get out of the heat or the rain, or trying to use the bathrooms to clean up, or napping on the couches. It’s easy to say “30 min and go” when you imagine everyone is literally just going to look at the new releases, take some, and leave.

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  7. danielle pitter says:

    I don’t think libraries should close down indefinitely; people need to work. Librarians need to work. Yes, it’s not just about books but the general services these places provide. We’d been in lockdown for 3 months and all it did was raise my anxiety on where my next meal would come from. Just stay safe and protect yourself when you go out because closing/locking up will do more harm than good.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think libraries want to close indefinitely or that most of them even imagine they will. I think it’s just a matter of where each local area is in terms of cases. Cases are still rising where I am, so the library has been more cautious than others.

      And the staff are still working, just from home. They’ve expanded digital services and are offering a large number of online programs that can’t have been easy to put together on such short notice. I’m sure they had to do extensive research to try to teach themselves all these new online services and figure out how to make videos and transform their normal offerings into virtual programs with Zoom, Kahoot, etc. I don’t think they’re on vacation by any means–they’re working very hard! And still getting paid for it.

      But you are right that the library provides many essential services to the community. However, my library has a phased reopening plan that means they are not going back to full, “normal” service anytime in the near future. Even if they start opening up, people aren’t going to get to sit on the couch all day or surf the internet for six hours. So these general services still won’t be offered. It will mostly be picking up your materials and leaving.

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  8. Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

    As someone who works in a library, as much as I miss the patrons, I’m glad we’re closed to the public! For all the reasons you brought up in this. This was something we considered months ago, but there was no satisfactory way we could see to safely keep the library open. Not to mention that we have a lot of older workers, which means half (or more) of our staff would be unable to work due to the increased risk.

    Most libraries are offering other solutions, and I think it’s just a matter of patrons knowing about them and taking advantage. For example, Overdrive is definitely a thing, and it doesn’t require leaving home, for those who are completely quarantining themselves. Our library, along with many neighboring ones, are also doing curbside! This may not be true of all libraries, either, but with ours, at least, you can log in right on the computer, browse the catalog, and place whatever you want on hold and just come pick it up, easy as that.

    I certainly can’t speak for every library, but what I see in our little branch tends to be that people don’t want to take advantage of the new services. Which is fair, I guess. They’re used to interacting with the library in a certain way, and even though they can still totally fulfill their entertainment needs by checking out books and movies, they don’t *want* to change their way of interacting. They want to be able to come in and mosey around and browse and spend time, as you pointed out. It’s almost less about the books and more about the experience, because we’ve repeatedly stressed these past months that we will go out of our way to get these things checked out to people, and some people just don’t want it unless they can come in and pick them up themselves. Which is fine, until those are the people complaining about us needing to open because now they can’t get books. xD

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, I see the same thing playing out on my library social media. Even though the library has expanded their digital services and keeps advertising them, all people ever write is, “When are you opening?” and “When can I browse again?” (like getting to place holds isn’t sufficient). Someone even noted the new services are “nice but not enough,” which seems kind of hurtful. This is a new situation for everyone and the library has tried to adapt as much as they can, as fast as they can. I think some people do not understand the gravity of the pandemic. No, the library–and the world–are not going back to “normal” any time soon. And I think the sooner we all accept that, the more creative we will be with our solutions, and the happier we will be with accepting what we can do, instead of complaining about what we cannot do.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

        I totally agree. Imagine how much nicer things would be if people accepted that everyone is doing their best and embraced the new changes as something novel, albeit potentially temporary, and just enjoyed them for what they were?

        It just kills me that I see local people talking about schools shouldn’t be opening in the fall with how COVID is spreading, but then the same people are demanding the library open. xD I’m just like … where do you think those kids are going if they’re not in school?!

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          I really think people envision the library as akin to the grocery store, where people grab stuff and go, but that isn’t the case. If the schools are closed and the libraries are open, yeah, all those kids will just be congregating there instead.

          Like

  9. Michael J. Miller says:

    I absolutely agree. Libraries being closed is sad. It can be frustrating and disappointing and complicated, too. I grant that. But this is larger than all of us. We all have to make sacrifices for the good of everyone. That’s the only way we beat this and it’s the only decent, moral choice to make, too. Even though my community is in “green phase” now, I’m still doing my best to limit when I go out and where I go as this is about everyone, not just me and my wants and desire. You put it perfectly when you wrote, “However, I don’t value my desire to read new releases or to watch movies as more important than the lives in my community.” You can replace “read new releases or to watch movies” with soooooooo many other things right now. And we’d be far better off if more people a) could see the importance of this and b) would embrace that mentality.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      I think libraries are extra hard for people right now because they become particularly necessary in times when the economy is not doing well. With so many people losing their jobs, many of them will need library services more than ever. However, I know my library has been offering extra services like purchasing more WiFi hotspots that they have distributed throughout the community, or purchasing books to be donated directly to children for them to keep. They are trying to think outside the parameters of their regular services to reach the people most in need. If they keep finding ways to reach out directly to in-need groups, I think it becomes less necessary for us all to keep complaining about things like not being able to go in and personally browse for books instead of placing a hold for curbside pick-up. That’s sort of a “luxury” in these times, and not really at the level of someone needing internet access to apply for unemployment benefits or to do their homework.

      I’m still trying to limit my contact with the outside world, as well, though it seems to be becoming increasingly more difficult. I can tell people are really tired of staying at home and they are meeting in groups again. The other day I drove by a party that had rented a large bounce house and a water slide. I’ve been guilted by others for staying home. I don’t think people realize that we are technically still in the first wave and we are waiting for a potential second wave to start soon in the fall. I just don’t feel it’s right to be going out and about and opening up things solely because we are bored and want our entertainment industries back.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        Agreed, Sadly, this whole pandemic has really illustrated the lack of empathy and the willingness and ability to make sacrifices in large segments of our population. A few weeks ago a friend of mine observed that, if WWII happened now, the Axis powers would win because the US as a whole clearly lacks the ability to come together and sacrifice for a greater cause like we did in the ’40s. I really couldn’t disagree with him.

        I was just having a conversation the other day with an aunt who was in visiting from out of town. She was complaining about the current PA ordinance that limits restaurants to 25% dine-in capacity. She was saying how impossible it will be for restaurants to stay running in this way and how unfair it was. I challenged that maybe it was up to the community to help. So, for example, if you have a local restaurant you love and really want to support, if you normally go for lunch at noon, maybe you go at 2:00 one day instead, to help spread the crowd out, or do dinner at 5:00 instead of 7:00. I tried to explain the idea a few times but it just wasn’t clicking for her. She kept saying how it was killing local business and how unfair it was. I kept saying we can make sacrifices to help others – if we really love a restaurant and want to dine-in as opposed to carry-out, we can be mindful of when it’s best for THEM as opposed to just complaining that we can’t always do what’s best for US. Sadly the argument landed like bullets on Superman :/.

        And that brings us back to the library issue. As you said, different segments of the population need the library for different reasons and it’s fair to look at a scale of importance. Those with the greater needs do have an ethical right to the resources first and they should be considered in a preferential light when libraries are devising their policies. Karl Marx always gets credit for the whole “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” thing but he really lifted the line from Acts of the Apostles. But regardless of the citation, it’s right! That’s our ethical imperative. And I think libraries – as with all facets of our society trying to sort this – need our support as they try to navigate a tricky and dangerous time. They are in a place where they have to come up with a constantly revolving range of ideas – things like curbside pick-up or donations directly to children – and they have to be continually inventive as our understanding of the virus and governmental ordinances keep changing. We need to be as supportive as we can as opposed to complaining because we can’t have what we want, when we want it, as we’re used to.

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        • Krysta says:

          I was talking with a friend about WWI and WWII the other day and we were wondering how they did it. I was thinking, can you imagine if it were now: “I’m not raising a victory garden! I have rights!” It just seems so…silly. But I think that’s what would happen. We don’t seem to have any shared sense of community or responsibility.

          I don’t know why, but there seems to be this generational thing where all the retired people I know keep complaining about how they can’t eat out and I am so confused. Why would you want to, as someone most vulnerable? But also, is it so bad to do takeout? You still get the benefits of eating your favorite food and not having to cook, right? You could even make it fun. Eat outdoors. Make it a picnic? Is it really so terrible that you can’t sit there at the table? I guess I’m not that attached to eating out because it seems like a small concern when people are dying. And half the fun of eating out is being with other people, which you can’t do right now, anyway.

          And I keep thinking, I would feel SO bad if I were going out and about and then someone I knew got sick and it was my fault. I just think it would be incredibly awkward to have to notify everyone, “Yeah, I was out at a few functions I thought were safe and now you all need to get tested because of me. Sorry. Hope it works out for you.”

          I think people forget that people use libraries in all kinds of ways for all kinds of reasons. And so people see the library buildings closed and assume the library staff aren’t working and aren’t serving the community. But they do a lot of partnerships and good work that they don’t extensively advertise, and so people don’t know about it or see it. But I am pretty sure just about every library that is closed to the public right now has still been working to get services and resources and information out to the public. We tend to think of the library as primarily a place to borrow books–which is admittedly how I use it–but it really is more than that. And if libraries see their current role as pivoting to provide more direct services to the most vulnerable populations in this time of crisis, I support that.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            I just drove by one of my local libraries yesterday and they had a big sign out front that said, “WiFi Available from the Parking Lot – No Password Required” and I thought of this post. The library itself is closed but they are still making sure the community knows they can pull in and use their WiFi from the safety of their car (they are also doing curbside pickups for books and resources, too). And I was…proud. I was proud not just of libraries as an institution but for having went to that library myself and for the people who were working to do their best to make certain they could still provide resources in a safe way to the people who needed them.

            On the dining out note, I was at our local Sonic a month or two back and I saw this family who had all ordered and gotten their food and then setup a huge circle of chairs – all safely 6′ apart – in this empty parking lot adjacent to the restaurant. They had “went out” and were together for lunch while still social distancing. I just thought that was fantastic.

            I’m with you on the worrying about getting someone else sick, too. Whenever I go out I tend to run through all the people I see on a regular basis in my mind. I’m doing my best to be safe not just for myself – or even primarily for myself – but for the people I do come in contact with. I love them and care about them and I have a responsibility to them as well.

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  10. louloureads says:

    My local library was closed for several months but is gradually reopening again, starting with a click-and-collect option and now having progressed to limited opening hours in which a person can browse for 30 minutes. The librarians are behind Perspex screens and everyone has to give their details when they go in for tracing in case of a positive test. They are doing a good job policing it and most people are being respectful. It has made a huge difference to me for the library to be open, and I live in a pretty deprived area so I am sure it has had an even bigger difference to parents who need to get books for their children while homeschooling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      My library has a phase reopening plan which will be similar. They have needed time to implement it, however, and I think they’re being extra cautious considering that cases where the library is located are still rising. And I don’t think they were ever under the recommended transmission rate levels. In the meantime, they have been creative in going outside their regular services, purchasing and distributing WiFi hotspots through the community, for example.

      Like

  11. BookManiaLinda (@LindaWonder) says:

    My library had a great model – they closed for one week, and then instituted curbside pickup. They have been doing that since March 23. They did not take returns for a long time, until maybe June. They opened for computer appointments in June also, but then they stopped that for a while, maybe because there were some problems, maybe because of an uptick in cases (I’m not sure). I know that librarians put up with a lot of unruly patrons in the best of times, and I would shudder to think that some people would just create a problem for them because they can. I think the model we have right now is working fine, until such time as it is truly safe for people to gather again. I am sad that I was not able to bring my grandson to story time but there will be other times. I miss my librarian friends, and the many resources that can only be used in the building. I miss my book club! (we have had some zoom meetings but that poses its own problems) This does not mean libraries aren’t essential. All of your points are valid. Libraries aren’t grocery stores. Librarians needs to be safe, patrons need to be safe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Wow! Your library seems to have adjusted faster than most! I think it’s incredible they were able to put in place a curbside service so quickly! But I think they must have also been forward-thinking because I know a lot of people genuinely thought we were only going to have a two-week shutdown. I thought maybe we’d go into June. But I don’t think many people realized we’d still be at home five months later. It’s been a challenge for sure!

      Yeah, the virtual programs are nice, but there are always the technical difficulties and they’re really not the same as meeting in person. I think I get screen fatigue, as well. I just don’t want to be staring at a computer all day, even in the name of socializing.

      Like

  12. Eustacia | Eustea Reads says:

    In Singapore, we closed all the libraries during our circuit breaker (our version of a lockdown), and the libraries only opened in phase 2 of the circuit breaker exit, with a lot of restrictions (crowd control, contact tracing, limiting visits to 30 min, taking away all the chairs so you can’t sit and read (visits are just to borrow books), etc).

    Given that people were flocking the libraries just before the circuit breakers as one of the free and accessible places that were open, I’ve no doubt that closing them was the right thing to do.

    Like

    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      The lockdown in my area was very weird because basically the first thing they did was close the schools…and nothing else. So then instead of crowds of kids at school, they were just crowding the shops and the libraries and the parks until everything else starting closing.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Krysta says:

          I think the U.S. has overall lacked direction. States and even local areas within states are all kind of doing their own thing. You can live in a place with heavy restrictions, then drive across the border some miles away where restrictions are looser. It’s been very confusing and has led, I think, to this general sense that the officials don’t know what they’re talking about, leading a lot of people to believe the pandemic isn’t that bad. I think U.S. cases are going up so dramatically because the country is NOT all in this together. Not remotely.

          Liked by 1 person

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