The big news since early June, when I first wrote about the uncertainty public libraries face in reopening, is that many more libraries have indeed reopened. And along the way, library managers have been presented with more information to guide our efforts.

This summer, it’s no longer enough to be grateful that the air conditioning is working. Library administrators today must delve deeply into whether our air handling systems are capable of capturing virus particles and airborne infectious materials. We’re also following the latest research about aerosols (you know, those tiny droplets in the air that enable the novel coronavirus to pass from person to person) and gazing longingly out the library’s windows, wondering what services, programs, or even collections we can pack up and bring out into the relative safety of the great outdoors.

When our library, the White Plains (NY) Public library, reopened to the public on July 28, we didn’t know what to expect. So we were very happy to be greeted by applause from about a dozen waiting patrons—all appropriately lined up six feet apart and wearing masks!

Since then, our visitor numbers have remained manageable. After several weeks of contactless curbside pickup, we now allow up to 20 adults and teens in the building at any given time for browsing and borrowing—no chairs, no computers, no programs. The Trove, our children’s library (now just a collection of books) welcomes one family at a time for a 45-minute visit, reserved in advance—and families have loved having the children’s room, which typically books up to three days in advance, all to themselves.

This is what is working for us so far. But we remain in uncharted territory, and we know things can change quickly. Right now, we are all watching closely what happens with our public school districts, both with the models of learning they are making available for families, and what impact a return to the physical classroom may have on community spread. We are exploring ways to support online learning through story times, book groups, STEM activities, and more. And, we are also trying to determine how we can help families by engaging children during out-of-school time.

What I'm Thinking About

As a director, the biggest surprise for me through the pandemic has been the success of our curbside pick-up. For many patrons, curbside pickup has mitigated their anxiety about coming back to the library. But at our library, like many around the country, we’ve paired our curbside service with a strong readers advisory element. If a request for a title can’t be immediately fulfilled, we don’t just send patrons home empty-handed—we help them discover other authors, books, and films from our collection. And that’s what patrons have really loved about our curbside service—and something that never worked quite as well when it was done across a reference desk.

Our success with curbside pickup has me thinking how can we continue to offer such personalized service when we are able to fully open our buildings. Should we be shifting more resources to sustain curbside pickup? Should our current service—or at least elements of it—survive past the pandemic?

The popularity of digital content, especially e-books, is also on my mind. For years, we’ve marketed our e-books, digital audio, and streaming media services to decent results. But in the wake of the pandemic, our e-book circulation is now up to a quarter of what my print circulation was last year—and it is climbing every month.

Paying $65 for two years of one copy/one user access to an e-book was not sustainable before the pandemic, when digital demand was rising but still small. What if demand continues to grow at current levels?

Is this shift in reader behavior temporary, or permanent? I’m thinking the latter. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve continued to provide reference services, and a huge majority of the questions were from users who wanted help in accessing e-books. We’ve seen readers who have been reluctantly pushed by the pandemic into using e-books and have found the experience isn’t so bad. And we’ve seen established e-book users who had never tried the library’s collection. They’re here to stay.

Future demand for our digital materials holds huge implications for the library. Some publishers have cut libraries a break on pricing during the pandemic, but we still don’t know what the market will look like once the pandemic is over. If, as I expect, a greater portion of our readers have become digital readers, shifting resources to meet e-book demand will impact our ability to buy print, and to build a broad, diverse collection. Paying $65 for two years of one copy/one user access to an e-book was not sustainable before the pandemic, when digital demand was rising but still small. What if demand continues to grow at current levels?

Computers also remain a sticking point. Providing access to computers and assistance in their use goes to the heart of today’s public library service. But I’ve found that offering computers—even when remote support is in place—challenges social distancing and nearly always requires staff intermediation. And is it really safe to have a patron sitting stationary in a single space for 30 or 45 minutes these days? Some libraries have gotten creative with computer services, including the Denver Public Library, which has offered computer availability and staff assistance outside their buildings this summer—the best solution I’ve seen yet.

And then there is online programming. Our book groups are bourgeoning, and author events are more of a draw than ever. In fact, the online environment is so strong we’re planning a One City, One Book event this fall around Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. We’ve even booked an online visit with Kendi for late October.

Libraries now have nearly six months of data to draw on as we plan our online programs for the fall and winter. And at our library, online programming has succeeded beyond our expectations. Our wellness programs are going strong (we’re even starting a morning exercise program). Both adults and teens love our craft workshops (patrons pick up the supplies from the front of the Library). And we’ve learned that events that once attracted big crowds in person, like a magician, can be just as successful virtually.

The formula is simple: the community still wants to come together, learn, and share with one another through the library. Programs like Zoom make it easier than ever to support scores of discussion groups. And the flexibility of online programming—and the record-setting attendance—means there’s likely no going back for many library events. I doubt I’ll ever host a book group exclusively in person again.

Stay Safe

Of course, the most pressing concern for libraries in the midst of reopening is safety. Many of the librarians I’ve been hearing from have proceeded with caution, and have done well with their reopening plans. But there have been plenty of problems, too.

As anticipated, there have been reports around the country of patrons refusing to wear masks and harassing staff; patrons not practicing social distancing; staff workrooms being overcrowded; inadequate PPE available for staff, and, most unfortunately, in some cases, staff becoming sick. And some libraries—most notably Maryland’s Anne Arundel County Public Library—have even decided to roll back their in-person services amid staff safety concerns.

But while every library has its own unique circumstances and plans, we’re all playing with the same deck, sharing ideas and cobbling together services we believe will keep our workers safe. If you’re a library administrator questioning your reopening plan, you can always reach out to your colleagues around the country for perspective. But first and foremost, listen to your staff, and ask yourself this simple question: are you willing to work every day on a public service desk with the current infection rates in your community, with the amount of PPE and training currently available, and with the current policies and security plans you’ve put in place? If your answer is no, you have no business opening the library.