Librarian holding books

Libraries are often a place for community and sharing. However, COVID-19 has changed the way libraries do business. For most, that meant closing their doors to the public.

“The whole thing about libraries is that we share, we open ourselves up to additional risks and exposure,” Indiana Marion County Public Library (IMCPL) CEO Jackie Nytes said. “Traditionally, libraries have really developed a concept called ‘third place’; someplace you could go other than home or work, especially if you didn’t have clubs or churches you went to. They’re a place to spend time and a place that is open and free, and didn’t really place any limits on you. This new world we’re living in right now challenges that concept.”

Nytes said safety measures taken to stop the spread of COVID-19 will change the dynamic of public libraries in an effort to keep staff and patrons safe. IMCPL officials are in the process of figuring out a plan to reopen completely to the public.

“It’s hard to nail exactly when we’ll reopen,” Nytes said. “Like everybody, we’re very conscious of the need for safety and how we plan our services for patrons and staff. We’re working very carefully with health and hospitals to make sure that we are absolutely on target for services.”

On May 18, several library branches within Indianapolis Marion County Public Library began offering curbside pickup to allow patrons to safely check out books and other media. Patrons can put a book or item on hold online, and a staff member will bring it on a cart to you as you arrive to ensure there is no physical contact.

“Launching curbside pickup was invigorating for staff and well-utilized by patrons,” Nytes said in a statement. “We are proud of our safety precautions and delighted to get materials into the hands of our neighbors. Like anything new, we are uncovering adjustments to smooth it out — but overall it has been a success and we look forward to expanding to more branches soon.”

According to Joe Backe, director of communications for IMCPL, book drop offs throughout the branches were overwhelmed on the first day of curbside services. IMCPL eliminated late fees for patrons until June 8.

To ensure the safety of IMCPL patrons and staff, all returned items will be quarantined and disinfected, according to Nytes. 

When IMCPL gets the green light to reopen their branches, Nytes said social distancing measures will be enforced. Nytes expects IMCPL will have to delay events that draw a large crowd once branches are able to fully reopen, as well as limit the amount of people allowed in branches at one time, and limit the amount of time an individual is allowed to stay in the library. 

“We will have to manage the number of people in our buildings at any given time to maintain social distancing,” Nytes said. “We have new protocols for cleaning computers and computer mice, and making sure if people go to the self checkout that it’s being cleaned between patrons, and we’re making sure that we’re cleaning the restrooms extra super frequently.”

For many, especially individuals without internet at home, libraries provide a space to check email, fill out forms and job applications, and for students to do homework. 

“For many in the population who are struggling,” Nytes said, “I think this is going to be a difficult relationship for folks and their libraries. We used to say ‘spend the day.’ That might not work as well for a while in the future.”

While there are still many unknowns about what things will look like after Marion County fully reopens, Nytes said patrons can rest assured they’ll be safe at IMCPL.

“We’re going to be really concerned about making sure that everything about the library is as clean and safe as it can be,” Nytes said. “We are following guidance provided by the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. When we’re able to fully reopen, it will in fact be something that you can trust.”

Contact staff writer Breanna Cooper at 317-762-7848. Follow her on Twitter @BreannaNCooper.

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