Across the world, many countries have begun a gradual reopening of public life in an attempt to return a sense of normalcy to residents’ lives and diminish the economic impact of the Covid-19 global pandemic.
In South Korea, baseball has resumed, though the season began five-weeks late, and teams are playing to empty stands outfitted with photos of masked fans.
Through the specific restrictions put in place, and those being lifted vary widely across the globe, libraries are struggling to figure out the best course of action to safely resume providing services to their communities. The Australian Library and Information Association sums it up nicely: “Reopening will not mean going back to the way things were pre-COVID-19; it will mean putting in place the ‘new normal’ approach to library services.”
Libraries are not “low-risk”
After pushback from librarians, on April 20th, Johns Hopkins amended their previously published report which originally classified libraries as “low-risk” for re-opening. “There’s a perception that libraries are still these quiet, austere temples of knowledge, but we’ve really become community centers and gathering places,” said Peter Coyl, Director of the Montclair Public Library in New Jersey, in a recent Forbes article about the change.
This comes as no surprise to librarians, who welcomed the addendum to the Johns Hopkins report which states that “libraries that incorporate social activities or community gatherings into their services should refer to the ‘community centers’ category” – a category considered as medium to high risk, similar to restaurants and retail stores.
In Germany, the Bremen Public Library held a press conference with CEO, Barbara Lison and the Deputy Minister for Culture, Carmen Emigholz, on the reopening of the library.
Curbside or remote pickup
Many restaurants have continued to serve customers throughout the pandemic by offering curbside pickup of online or telephone orders. Most libraries have suspended all borrowing of physical items, often beefing up their digital collections to fill the gap. However, some libraries have offered curbside pickup, and many are considering it as a first phase of reopening.
In British Columbia, the Vancouver Public Library allows users to schedule a time to pick up holds. Users provide identification through a window, then back up beyond 6 ft. while library staff leave a bag of requested materials outside the door to be retrieved. When materials are returned through the book drop, staff members leave them untouched for 72 hours as a safety precaution.
Of course, each library will need to make the decisions that work best for their individual circumstances, but Australian librarian, Jane Cowell, has published an article offering key tips for libraries who are offering limited services in a pandemic.
Additionally, remote holds pick-up solutions further reduce user/staff contact while still providing access to physical library materials. Ulsan Metropolitan City Library in South Korea has been using Bibliotheca’s remoteLockers to provide access to physical materials during the pandemic. A college student in Ulsan has shared a lovely account of his experience of using the service on his personal blog.
Mokpo Public Library, in South Korea, began offering night-time pick up of materials through remoteLockers in January, just before the Covid-19 crisis began. “It allows the library to reach more local people and… contributes to the expansion of community’s reading population and the realization of a book-reading city,” says Director Cheol-rock Oh.
Phased reopening of library buildings
Continued social distancing concerns mean it will be a while before libraries are again the bustling centers of community activity, full of story time tots, book clubs, and study groups. Still, as some businesses begin to reopen at limited capacity, it may be helpful for libraries to take cues from those that have begun to reopen as they determine their own process for a phased approach.
Retailers are using ticker counters, or people-counting technology to ensure that they do not exceed a safe capacity, while using ground markings to help those waiting in line to maintain a safe distance from each other. Similar measures are being taken at Bremen Public Library in Germany, which reopened to patrons on May 4th.
Inside stores, aisles have been designated for one-way traffic using signage both on aisle end-caps and on the floors. Restaurants and coffeeshops are removing furniture or taping it off so that customers sit a safe distance from others.
In China, where some libraries have begun opening to the public, similar practices are in place. At the Shanghai Public Library, patrons use the library’s WeChat account to reserve a time to borrow materials. Visits are limited to one hour, and users may not sit or read in the library. Materials may be borrowed from the first-floor general collection only and the children’s area is not yet open for use. Inside the library, different routes have been established for borrowing and returning items.
In Germany, libraries are opening on a state by state basis. Some monitor the number of patrons inside the library by requiring all users (even children) to use a separate basket – the baskets are limited and allow for staff to see at a glance how many users are inside the library. Children’s areas and group meeting spaces are closed, and all seating furniture has been removed. Patrons are encouraged to limit their visits to 20 minutes (though this can vary from library to library) and facilities are open for borrowing and returning items only.
The Australian Library and Information Association has published a very helpful checklist outlining a well-thought-out, gradual response to reopening that is likely to be useful for all libraries, regardless of location.
Protecting Staff and Users
Obviously, a first step towards protecting the health and well-being of staff and users is preventing contact with those already sick. Health questionnaires and temperature checks are being widely used in Asia to screen visitors before allowing admittance to establishments. Social norms vary widely across the globe, and libraries will need to be sensitive to the tolerance levels of their own communities. However, even in the US, some businesses are requiring temperature checks and PPE for visitors.
Once inside the library, care must be taken to limit contact between staff and users. In addition to providing staff with masks and gloves, some institutions are taking extra precautions. In Brandenburg, Germany, The Brandenburg Museum Association’s guidelines include building plexiglass shields for ticket desks, providing disinfectant for staff, taking credit cards instead of cash and regular cleaning of facilities. The Library Association in Germany has published recommendations for the reopening of libraries, as has an inter-association group of librarians in France.
However, unlike restaurants and museums, which have a limited number of high-touch items to disinfect, libraries must contend with thousands of materials, many of which cannot be simply wiped down with disinfectant. In China, many libraries are using UV sanitizers to disinfect materials after return. In other parts of the world, libraries are developing their own protocols – some with multiple book drops are using one per day, then retrieving materials after a 72-hour waiting period. Others are configuring their AMH systems to deliver returned items to bins where the materials remain for a three-day period before being handled. The French guidelines also recommend a three-day quarantine for paper or cardboard materials, but recommend a 10-day quarantine for those with plastic covers.
The Bremen Public Library in Germany has partnered with a local theater company to build plexiglass protected workspaces for staff. The creative arrangement means that the library pays only for materials, while the labor is provided by the theater as part of a collaborative partnership.
Libraries with automated return solutions are able to ensure that returns are updated in users’ accounts immediately, allowing users to avoid late penalties or exceed maximum loan limits while waiting for materials to be safe to touch.
Self-service and Touchless Service More Important Than Ever
Pre-Covid 73% of shoppers preferred to handle their transactions via self-service. Since the pandemic began, 87% of grocery shoppers prefer to shop in stores with touchless or robust self-service options.
Though the threat of this particular virus will end, there can be no doubt that it will have a permanent impact on people’s perceptions about safety and preferences for limited contact. In the wake of Covid-19, self-service library technologies will be more important than ever.
To reduce risk to staff and users alike, libraries should encourage users to borrow and return items through self-service kiosks whenever available, eliminating the need for unnecessary human interaction. Hand sanitizer stations at self-checkout can reduce contamination of surfaces, however, Bibliotheca selfChecks can easily be configured for a completely touchless experience. Additionally, users can borrow materials directly from their own mobile devices with cloudLibrary checkout, reducing fear or anxiety for library users.
The future of libraries is seamlessly physical and digital
It must not go without saying that librarians and library staff have shown remarkable fortitude, creativity, and resilience during this crisis. Without the benefit of physical buildings and materials, libraries have continued to serve their communities by offering digital collections, video-conference book clubs, recorded and broadcast storytimes, webinars, and online consulting.
As libraries around the globe begin to reopen, these new virtual ways of connecting and communicating will no doubt, become an ever more important part of the library landscape.
While users are quickly adapting to virtual living and working environments, they are still craving human connections and familiar in-person experiences. Libraries must appeal to users with services that are seamlessly physical and digital. Bibliotheca looks forward to partnering with and helping libraries around the world turn this disruption into an opportunity to reimagine the future use of their libraries.