What Now?! Thoughts on Re-opening My Library in a Pandemic

How is everyone doing? Not to sound like the dozens of emails you’ve no doubt received from countless large corporations, but what an unprecedented time we are living in.  (Are you tired of hearing that yet? Me too.) I’m willing to bet your education and training did not prepare you for this. 

grayscale photo of an exasperated-looking girl
Libraries are starting to re-open. Are you ready? Because I’m willing to bet your education and training did not prepare you for this.

Some libraries have been closed for months and will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Others are offering limited services to their community. Some are tentatively reopening their doors, and still others are serving as disaster service workers, being taught to staff local food banks and to conduct contact tracing.

In short: the world is a Dumpster fire, and we are all just doing the best we can.

I am one of the libraries that will tentatively re-open in just a few days. Iowa never had a shelter-in-place order, though many places were ordered closed. However, on May 1, the governor announced that several businesses and services were allowed to open; among the first wave were farmer’s markets, retail stores, restaurants and, yes, libraries. 

Though many Iowa libraries are choosing to stay closed until mid-May, others opened right away — even a few in my county. As you can imagine, this puts pressure on others to open. Community members wonder, “If that library is open, why can’t you be?”

The truth is, I’m not comfortable opening yet, and I don’t know when I will be. Iowa’s numbers have not yet declined, and the death toll rises each day. Our building is so tiny that it’s just not possible to enforce social distancing, particularly when kids are involved. In addition, most small, rural libraries can’t afford to purchase sneeze guards, partitions or book sanitizers, and protective gear and cleaning supplies are hard to find.

Plenty of Iowa librarians feel that it’s too soon, but many can’t do anything about it. In one area library, a few staff members have even decided to retire early because they are afraid to go back; if they choose to stay home once the library is open, they risk losing their unemployment. 

If the numbers continue to rise in my area, I'm lucky to be in a position where I can choose to keep the library closed. However, I’m not sure of that decision either. As librarians, we're expected to want to serve our community in the best way we can. We are supposed to prove to our city, our government, that libraries are, in fact, essential. How can we illustrate that when we are choosing to remain closed despite others choosing to open? But does proving our importance mean risking lives? I don’t think so, and I’m not willing to be a martyr to my occupation, especially if it endangers others. 

I suspect that there are a great many of us experiencing this anxiety right now. There is no one right answer, I know, but talking about it can only help. In that spirit, I want to share a few of my personal suggestions, whether you are sticking it out in quarantine or returning to work.

If you’re still quarantining

  • Remember, this time is not a productivity contest. Toward the beginning of our quarantine, I saw a meme that said something like, “If you aren’t taking this time to better yourself, learn a new skill, complete a project, or work on your body, you don’t have the right to complain about never having enough time.” I kindly invite the author of this meme to take this sentiment and shove it.

For one thing, not all of us have more free time than usual. Some of us have second jobs that are essential, and many are working from home. For another, we are all going through a traumatic experience: we are grieving the loss of our normal lives, our sense of security, our ability to leave the house as we please, our time spent with loved ones.

No one is going to win any awards for being the most productive during quarantine. If you don’t have the energy to teach yourself the ukulele, get a ripped “summer body” (PSA: Every body is a summer body), or bake the world’s best banana bread, that’s fine.  If you find it a chore to even shower every day, that’s normal. There's no right way to cope with a pandemic.

"I saw a meme that said something like, 'If you aren’t taking this time to better yourself, learn a new skill, complete a project, or work on your body, you don’t have the right to complain about never having enough time.' I kindly invite the author of this meme to take this sentiment and shove it." -- Chelsea Price

  • Don’t try to do everything. You don’t have to do online story time if you don’t want to. Goodness knows there are enough virtual story times out there! Don’t beat yourself up for not participating in every library-related online activity, from how-to videos to craft walkthroughs to virtual book clubs. You can’t do it all, and you shouldn’t try. 
  • Don’t neglect the routines that make you feel better. Don’t forget to hydrate, feed yourself well and try to get outside once a day. Unplug on the evenings or weekends if you can. Spend time with your pets (petting dogs lowers blood pressure!) and get enough sleep. If you’re used to getting therapy and can’t go to in-person appointments right now, see if your therapist will do virtual or phone appointments. Sticking to some sort of routine will help you cope. (See my post on job burnout for more tips.)

If you’re reopening

  • Go slow. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don't do too much, too soon. You probably know that many libraries are doing a phased reopening — Phase 1 might be curbside pickup, Phase 2 might be limited hours, no computers or toys, Phase 3 could be allowing single-person computer usage, and so on, eventually building to small in-person programs. Many libraries are planning for a virtual summer reading program and have postponed in-person programming until fall.

Look to your state libraries or local health officials for guidance. Your priority is safety, and you’re no good to the community if you're putting your health or patrons’ at risk.  

  • Cut your staff some slack. If you are in a position of power at your library, go easy on your staff. Don’t discourage them from using sick days or vacation, particularly if they are in a high-risk category. If your area still has high numbers and you have the ability to stay closed, consider doing so. If your library has no masks, gloves or sufficient cleaning supplies, ask yourself honestly if you can safely open to the public.

For everyone

  • Now is a time to re-evaluate. What grade would you give your library on your pandemic response? What will your library do differently if this (God forbid) happens again?

    Perhaps you wish you had had a pandemic policy in place or a more thorough cleaning plan. Maybe you would think about installing partitions between the computers, getting a grant for WiFi hotspots to check out to the community, figuring out different ways to connect with your patrons who don’t have internet. What shortcomings have become apparent in the past two month? Now is the time to try to fix them.

It would be nice if there was a definitive answer to all this, wouldn’t it? Unfortunately, there isn't. On the bright side, we are all generally in the same boat. Reach out to other libraries in your area and work with them on reopening plans; join Facebook groups or listservs and commiserate with others who feel your pain. Know that you are not alone.

In the meantime, if you have a coping strategy that has helped you during this stressful time, or if you just need someone to vent to, please share in the comments or reach out to me at chelseaprice@meservey.lib.ia.us. I’m here for you!