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Public Libraries Plan Reopening As Pandemic Restrictions Loosen

Public libraries are working to open up their facilities to the public again, even as they expand their offerings online. 

When Governor J.B. Pritzker's stay-at-home order went into effect mid-March, most businesses and nonprofits temporarily shut down. Jen Barton, the director of Genoa Public Library, said there wasn’t any specific guidance in the order for libraries.

“It’s been sort of a trial and error process through the whole, being closed, are we essential, are we not essential?" Barton said. "What can we do if we are closed and how can we go about reopening and still being safe?”

Some libraries also had outstanding materials when they closed their doors. But when they closed completely, they worked to shift services to a virtual context. DeKalb Public Library Director Emily Faulkner said they teamed up with Hoopla, an online streaming service for media such as audiobooks, movies and magazines.

“Since nobody was able to get print books for a month or two, we thought it was a better use of the funds to have things that were available from home using that money," said Faulkner. "So that was a new relationship.”  

Sycamore Library already had a contract with Hoopla. But Director Monica Dombrowski said they’ve also been taking physical events online.

“We created a YouTube channel while we were closed, which isn’t something we had before," she said. "We started offering a lot of things through Facebook Live, doing some recorded programs we could post up.” 

These can range from guest speakers to full-blown story times. For this, Dombrowski said employees stocked up on material from the library for recording.

“So they’d grab all the books and take them home," said Dombrowski. "They’re doing a song, they’re doing some hand movements and body movements, and then they’re doing a story.”

That video could then be uploaded online. In Sycamore’s case, Dombrowski said, people have been quite receptive, with the videos even gaining an audience out-of-state. Faulkner said DeKalb also offers themed story times. 

“So you tune in and Batgirl will read you a story and you’ll get Ariel telling you all about what it’s like under the sea.”

Once restrictions began to loosen, some libraries began to offer curbside pickup. This allows patrons to reserve specific books without having to enter the library. Librarians can also help people find specific books in a genre they like, or even point them to something entirely new. The process runs smoothly, but once materials come back, Dombrowski said they need to be “quarantined.”

“One of our meeting rooms is literally a table for every day of the week and then all of the items that get returned have to go on that table for the duration of the quarantine period.” 

Originally, this was an entire week before books could be checked out again. But a recent library study says that can now be as few as 72 hours. 

Now, libraries such as Sycamore are planning the reopening of their buildings to the public. Dombrowski said this has patrons excited.

“They’ve come up to the front of the glass since they’ve been back in the library and brought us cookies and signs and said 'We missed you' and we miss them just as much.”

DeKalb Library has already opened. Though they’ve had to shut down some areas, such as specialized reading rooms, they can still offer access to computers and other in-library services that involve fewer people. Faulkner said that includes browsing the shelves.

“It’s still somewhat a risk. The same way you go to a grocery store, you can never be totally sure that that box of Lucky Charms hasn’t been touched by the guy who walked down the aisle before you," she said. "But we’re really hoping we can minimize that and make people feel safe coming to the library.” 

Sycamore plans to open July 13th, and Genoa is looking at how it would reopen its doors. Director Barton said in the long-term, libraries can apply what they’ve learned during the pandemic.

“We’re kind of exploring how we can provide more services in a virtual way," said Barton. "But perhaps also having the opportunity for people who may not choose to do it virtually still have similar access.” 

Regardless of whether the libraries are open, have yet to open, or are just making plans, Faulkner said overall the community views them as valuable resources.  

“I have to say I know people loved the library," said Faulkner, "but it wasn’t until they started leaning out of their cars to yell at me while I was gardening about it that I realized how much they missed us.” 

And they look forward to meeting their patrons in person.