For years, “what they didn’t teach you in library school” was the fun meme used to capture the less glamorous tasks librarians have to perform, from unplugging the men’s room toilet to fishing garbage out of the book drop. Well, in the wake of Covid-19, that meme has been blown out of the water.

Today, librarians are all trying to understand how the novel coronavirus spreads and what that means for library environments. Coughing and sneezing? Speaking? Breathing? How does the virus travel on the airflow? We’re desperate for an authoritative answer on how long the virus lives on different surfaces. We’re learning more every day about the troubling role asymptomatic people play in spreading the disease, about contact tracing and how it works. We’re trying to understand what the presence of antibodies really means in terms of immunity. And with a puzzling, Kawasaki-like inflammatory disease attacking young people, what can be done with our children’s libraries, given that kids will never learn to practice social distancing?

No, we’re not epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, or public health experts, and in normal times I’d be happy to wait for the experts to weigh in with their well-researched opinions. But these are not normal times. And the clock is ticking. Soon, I’ll begin the process of reopening my library, the White Plains Public library (N.Y.), bit by bit.

If you work in a public library, you may already be open to the public in some fashion or other, such as offering curbside pickup. Or you may be planning a phased reopening in the coming weeks. If you’re a library worker, you’re probably anxious about what your job will look like going forward. And if you’re a library manager, like me, you’re no doubt feeling the pressure of your colleagues and staff relying on you to get it right.

Where's the Leadership?

Yet, what’s been most startling and difficult about this strange and uncertain moment in public library history is how alone we are. As we prepare to open our doors again, so many of the leaders, experts, and institutions librarians normally turn to for guidance have either gone silent, proven unreliable, or are actively making matters worse.

Take the American Library Association. On March 13, when nearly every public library in the nation was debating whether to close, the ALA issued a statement long on platitudes and short on empathy. Staying open? Wash your hands. Considering a closure? Follow the direction of your local health department. That was hardly what we needed to hear at the time—our professional organization basically denying librarians agency in the midst of a pandemic. Just four days later, on March 17, the ALA Executive Board issued a statement recommending that all libraries close. Confusing much?

On the other hand, I give kudos to Anthony Marx, president of the New York Public Library. Marx shuttered NYPL early on, reportedly against the wishes of the mayor, and ahead of the city’s other library systems. Marx has since been trying to explain to the public the complexity and care needed to successfully reopen the system. It’s impossible to overstate the influence that flagship library systems like NYPL can have on other libraries. Marx’s words gave scores of other library leaders in the tri-state area something tangible and reasonable to bring to their boards.

Then there’s Chicago, where the library community has watched in horror as library staff were ordered back to work when virtually every other urban library in the country remained closed. Staff were reportedly told they should return to work on May 20 to prepare for an early June reopening—just in time for what Governor Pritzker had predicted would be Illinois’s Covid-19 peak. In late May, one Chicago library worker took the drastic measure of posting a letter on social media urging patrons to stay away, accusing library administrators of rushing ahead with an unsafe plan.

As we prepare to open our doors again, so many of the leaders, experts, and institutions librarians normally turn to for guidance have either gone silent, proven unreliable, or are actively making matters worse.

One of the big challenges I’ve faced is deciphering where libraries fit into my state’s reopening plans. Maybe the New York State Library could help? Alas, no. The state library has made it clear that it doesn’t have the authority to interpret Governor Andrew Cuomo’s order or to provide guidance, instead punting the hard work back to the patchwork of local library systems. How about at least serving as a clearinghouse for best practices, new information, or highlighting exemplary reopening plans? No, again. The state library’s website has plenty of information about the summer reading program, but not much about keeping libraries safe from a pandemic that has killed roughly 30,000 New Yorkers.

Finally, there’s science. No, science hasn’t betrayed us; it just feels like it has. We can’t blame the scientific community for not providing more authoritative data about a novel coronavirus. But even a little more data-based guidance would help. We’ve all listened and relistened to the Institute for Museum and Library Services’ webinar “Mitigating Covid-19 When Managing Paper-Based, Circulating Collections” so many times we could put on a readers’ theater version. And we’ll just have to wait patiently for the most authoritative information to emerge from the 15-month initiative, “Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums Information Hub: A Covid-19 Research Project of OCLC, IMLS, and Battelle.” If nothing else, it might come in handy for the next pandemic.

It’s no wonder so many library workers are terrified and nervous. While New York Forward, my state’s reopening plan, all but guarantees we will return to a safer environment than the one we left, it’s hard for many of us to move beyond the tragedy and uncertainty of the past few months. Meanwhile, others are bored, eager to get going again, and hungry for human interaction, though those feelings, too, can often be driven by fear—the fear of losing one’s job.

As public libraries begin reopening, the reality on the ground is that library managers around the country are having to figure out their own ways forward. We are sharing information on listservs and other informal networks, and reaching out to friends and colleagues to ascertain how we can make our reopenings—from the staff’s return to the building, to the introduction of limited service and the eventual opening to the public—safe, and as successful as possible. But it’s hardly ideal.

How to proceed?

I’m one of the lucky ones. My city and my board of trustees support a careful, measured reopening and a cautious, incremental rollout of services. Not every librarian is so fortunate. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I can share some of the broad strokes of what I’ve learned so far.

First, don’t just share your reopening plan with your staff—create it with your staff.

This way, you can flush out the real issues your colleagues have with reopening—for example, what do you do when a patron refuses to wear a mask—while capturing and sharing a diversity of viewpoints that will help your plan succeed, and will keep your staff and the public as safe as possible.

Accept, too, that your reopening plan is a living document and will need to be continuously evolving. The research released by the CDC in mid-May indicating that the primary way Covid-19 spreads is through prolonged exposure in closed spaces upended much of my library’s initial planning. We had to pivot to a plan that better redistributes staff throughout the building, ensuring that there would be at most two people at a time in any workroom.

Resist pressure.

A measured library reopening and the slow unfolding of phases over the coming months, perhaps years, are sure to face all sorts of resistance from those who want the library of the past back, and want it right now. But this isn’t the time to fly the “mission accomplished” flag. Don’t ever forget: we know what’s best for our community and our staff. And if the pressure mounts, be ready to tap the political capital you’ve been developing all these years.

Go ahead and get into the weeds.

Even if you’re the big-picture type, bear down and pay attention to the details. You can’t get too granular when it comes to developing your library’s reopening, nor can you review it too often with your colleagues. Curbside pickup in particular needs to be choreographed like a pas de deux.

Take up new initiatives.

It might seem counterintuitive when we will be struggling to reestablish ourselves, but we also can’t ignore the staggering societal changes we’ve undergone in just two months. One, if libraries can’t find ways to help people as they seek to reenter the work force or otherwise improve their skills—while also social distancing and with limited technology—then we may as well not bother opening at all. And two, put the fight for universal broadband at the top of your advocacy agenda. The pandemic has now made crystal clear why the internet needs to be treated as a public utility.

Reflect on what we’ve done.

Like most libraries, my colleagues left the building in March, but kept the library going by redesigning the website, beefing up our digital offerings, setting up reference services on multiple platforms, and creating a far-ranging schedule of online programs. The resulting experiences, as well as the metrics, have astonished us all.

Yes, it’s deeply troubling that some in our community still can’t participate because they lack hardware or connectivity. And, as I noted, this is on our advocacy agenda, for sure. But we’ve also ended up meeting so many residents who could never make it to our building for our programs because they were caring for kids or elderly parents, or had physical challenges or had other impediments. These patrons crowded into our Zoom workshops, joined online book groups, and are now able to participate in the community, all because we are finally meeting them where they are. One thing I’ve learned for sure: as we go forward, we can’t leave these people behind.

Covid-19 is changing public libraries in ways big and small, minor and profound. And as we all grapple with reopening, I still don’t think we have any real grasp of what the outcomes might be. But here’s something else I know: we can’t reopen our buildings with the intent of just reestablishing our past. If we listen to the public, they’re telling us: it’s time to create something new.

PW contributing editor Brian Kenney is director of the White Plains (N.Y.) Public Library and a former editorial director of Library Journal and Publishers Weekly.