In the U.S., it is up to the states - and sometimes regions within a state - to decide what type of institutions can reopen when (if indeed they had closed in the first place). If a public library is deemed essential or can provide services that lessen/eliminate face-to-face contact (e.g., no contact curbside pickup), they may be opening earlier than other institutions (e.g., K-12 school). Library directors should be aware of what their governors, county executives, or mayors are considering. Hopefully, they have been in direct contact and have been able to put forward a plan for their libraries that considers health and safety, as well as library services. There is no one right path forward, so deep thinking and sensitivity to the needs of staff and community members will be needed.
In my class, "The Public Library as Institution," I have taken the opportunity to talk with students about what public libraries may be thinking about, as they plan to reopen. I've encouraged students to think about what library directors are focused on, as well as what staff and the community might want to know about what their public libraries will do. There are SO many questions and not as many clear answers as we all would like.
This week, I read several documents related to how people are thinking about reopening. I believe that looking at what others are planning can be helpful, and that includes any plans from libraries. Those documents are:
- I live in New York State, so it is important that I lock at information specifically about what is happening here. The NY Forward Reopening Plan, page 31, shows that libraries could be in phase 1 or phase 4, depending on how the are seen/defined. The Onondaga County Executive Director has placed them in phase 1 with curbside delivery.
- The Johns Hopkins University report, Public Health Principles for a Phased Reopening During COVID-19: Guidance for Governors, is being used by many. It has been criticized, however, for seeing libraries as a place of low contact.
- The CDC seems to put libraries in the same category as 'Community and faith-based organizations.' Page 7 of this document may be of interest.
- The American Alliance of Museums has prepared a reopening plan and has compiled links to sample plans from specific organizations.
- The Massachusetts Library System is compiling reopening plans.
- South Carolina Coronavirus Reopening Guide for Public Libraries
Addendum, May 22:
- Information from the NYS Regents Advisory Council on Libraries, May 13, 2020, including plans from several public library systems.
- Albany (NY) Public Library Continuation of Service Plan, updated 5/12/2020.
Thank you for the question. My guess is that you meant to send this as a personal email, but since it’s been shared on NYLINE, I’ll take this opportunity to address the library community.
State agencies, including the State Education Department, do not have the authority to interpret the Governor’s orders or to provide interpretative guidance. There are some helpful resources available through the Governor’s Office that can guide libraries’ decision-making, like the NY Forward Business Express Lookup Tool, but I acknowledge that the resources that currently exist don’t address what’s to come. And thus don’t help to address the seemingly endless uncertainty and anxiety many of us are feeling.
In the spirit of full transparency, it’s important for me to add that even if the State Library had the authority to interpret the guidance, I don’t think these decisions would be best made by fiat of the State Library. New York is a large and diverse state with a unique range of public libraries. Although these are “unprecedented times,” we can still look to the trusted institutions that have always been best-positioned to make local and regional decisions. In the case of the reintroduction of library services, public library systems are certainly best positioned to help libraries work together to make decisions in the best interest of their communities. Public library systems across the state are developing reopening plans. Systems are looking at the Governor’s guidance, working with regional Control Rooms to interpret the guidance for that specific region, and then developing policies that will allow libraries to keep staff and community members safe as they reintroduce library services.
Even though it’s not official guidance, and you’re free to take it or leave it, here are the values that have been guiding my COVID-19 response work at the State Library:
- Value staff- Prioritize staff and community safety over everything else.
- Caution- Take your time. Things change rapidly. “Abundance of caution” is really just “caution” and is the best practice during this pandemic.
- Professional respect- Look out for each other. Recognize the uniqueness of each library and the uniqueness of each community.
- Service- Do whatever is in the State Library’s power to help libraries succeed.Although we’re not in Albany writing guidance and issuing edicts, State Library staff are working tirelessly every day to help libraries succeed. This work is best done on an individual basis, because every situation is unique. I implore any library who is struggling with a particular decision or navigating a difficult local situation to contact their regional liaison at the Division of Library Development or to contact [..] who oversees the public libraries program. State Library staff is committed to helping you.
I hope this email helps to explain things a bit, but know that the State Library is always working on your behalf. Please get in touch any time you have a question.
All the best,
Assistant Commissioner for Libraries and New York State Librarian