Libraries are resuming in-person borrowing services. Here’s how Cambridge is approaching a phased reopening.

“This is the challenge for libraries right now — how do we continue to innovate regardless of what happens in terms of what the new normal looks like?”

Cambridge, MA., 10/25/2019, The light-filled library at the 
 King Open/Cambridge Street Upper Schools &Community Complex. The new 273,000 square-foot school complex in Cambridge  houses two schools, a public library and other amenities, plus multiple playgrounds and a crazy amount of solar panels. I
 Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
In this photo from 2019, a librarian works the newly constructed Valente Branch of the Cambridge Public Library. –Suzanne Kreiter / Boston Globe, File

Good news for bookworms and bibliophiles — more and more libraries are offering in-person borrowing services as part of the state’s phased reopening following shutdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic

Both the Boston and Cambridge public libraries announced plans last week for pilot programs allowing library patrons to place requests for books and other materials to be picked up outside library buildings.

The Cambridge Public Library’s pilot program for contactless pickup of requested items kicked off at the main library on June 15, while Boston’s “BPL to Go” effort will launch June 22 at five branches. 

Libraries were allowed to begin offering curbside pickup and delivery only starting May 25 under Phase 1 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s Roadmap for Reopening. Under Phase 2, libraries are permitted to transition to limited browsing and “other transactions” with restrictions. 

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The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) and the Massachusetts Library System (MLS) developed guidance for how libraries can safely reopen with the ongoing pandemic, which libraries can follow in tandem with the safety checklist developed by the state. Libraries, like other industries, must provide self-certification to the state that they are complying with mandated safety checklists.

Those measures include requirements such as reconfiguring worker common spaces to allow social distancing, installing visual social distancing markers to encourage patrons to remain 6 feet apart, and requiring face coverings for all workers and library visitors. Libraries must also ​close all common seating areas and prohibit the use of public computers, printers, and other shared technology, as well as adjust staff operations and shifts to minimize contact and allow for ongoing off-hour sanitation and cleaning.

Officials have stressed that each library should consider what is best in their community in making their own plans to reopen, pointing out that libraries across the state have innovated during the months of physical closures to continue to offer services and events virtually to their patrons and community members.

“We are so inspired and heartened to see the incredible work our libraries continue to do to support their communities, even when physical locations have been closed,” MLS Executive Director Sarah Sogigian said in a May statement. “As our libraries move slowly toward offering in person patron services, we’ll be here to provide them with support and guidance.” 

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The MBLC and MLS are in the process of creating additional recommendations for libraries specific to Phase 2 of reopening and allowing limited browsing inside buildings. According to Matthew Perry, outreach coordinator for the MBLC, as of Monday the agency wasn’t aware of any libraries in the state that had opened for limited, in-person browsing. 

Incremental in Cambridge

In Cambridge, library director Maria McCauley told Boston.com the focus during their phased reopening is on doing so in a “thoughtful, incremental manner” to ensure the safety of both library staff and patrons. The library doesn’t have a timeline for when limited, in-person browsing might start up.

We just really want to be cautious,” she said. “We don’t want to be a place where the virus is broadly spread or spread at all. So I think it’s better to be really cautious in this situation with this public health crisis than to reopen too hastily.”

For the time being, she said the Cambridge library is focused on the pilot program for contactless pickup of holds at the main library. To get it started, she said the library contacted patrons who already had requested items from before the shutdown sitting on the hold shelves to see if they wanted to pick them up. Within a day of announcing the start of the pilot program, McCauley said the library had already gotten 150 appointment requests from patrons wanting to pick up materials. 

“That’s the wonderful thing about Cambridge — Cambridge is a community of readers,” she said. “People love their books. So we’re delighted. But I think that there’s going to be huge demand for this.”

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Once contacted by the library about a hold ready for pickup, library patrons then schedule a time to collect them at the main library. The materials will be in a marked bag outside with clear markings dictating social distancing measures, with staff on hand to help if there are questions. 

For anyone who isn’t sure what they want to request — and miss the browsing of the stacks — Cambridge is offering the option of calling library staff to get recommendations or filling out a form online to find “Your Next Great Read” for pickup.

“We’re all really eager to get books back into the hands of our patrons,” McCauley said. 

The hope is to eventually roll out the hold pickup service at other library branches in Cambridge, she said, but the space in the buildings is an important factor for the process — space to allow social distancing for staff, but also to house the library materials for a 72-hour quarantine before they get picked up and after they get returned. 

When staff do handle the materials, McCauley said, they will be wearing gloves and face coverings. 

“We’re really trying to limit the number of contacts on those materials,” the library director said. “We process many, many, many physical materials per day, so we think that this is the best and very safe model to follow. I think most libraries are doing some kind of quarantine.”

A slow return

As far as what comes after the pickup program, McCauley said the library is still considering how it will proceed and what a reopening to allow people inside the institution’s main location would look like. The library is in talks with city officials and the department of public health as it develops its phased reopening plans, taking recommendations — such as having hand sanitizer right at the door to the library for those entering — into consideration.

Perhaps that is a timed situation, perhaps people come in just to do some limited browsing and checking out of materials — that’s what we’re thinking about,” she said. “And then later on, to do more expanded browsing and then again some seating, sitting down for potentially limited periods of time.”

The hope is the library might eventually be able to return to hosting small groups, such as for classes or book groups. But getting back to the normal operations of hosting large public programs at the library likely won’t happen for a “very long time” given the current realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s a sad reality, she said, given that libraries are used to serving a welcoming, open space for everyone.

“One of the things we’re grappling with the most is we’ve always fundamentally been there, especially for people who didn’t have access,” McCauley said. “But I do think that in an abundance of caution, that we’re not going to be able to — right when we open our doors — necessarily make everything available to people to sit and use. Especially if they’re using their hands on it a lot. I think we need to see what happens with the virus.”

The library system is also moving slowly with reopening because of capacity considerations, she said. For staff members, there are child care constraints for returning to work — since child care providers are only just starting to reopen more broadly. But there are also staff who have health concerns about returning to work because of the virus.

“That’s part of our factoring-in for going slowly as well,” she said. “And then also, we want to make sure that the smaller branches are just as safe to reopen, so we’ve been focusing on the main library which has the most space for staff to spread out in … and then to look at the smaller libraries to see what is possible.”

In the virtual world

While the library was fully closed for any in-person services, the library director pointed to how staff pivoted services to be virtual, which they hadn’t worked much with before COVID.

“We’re doing a lot of our programs in the virtual world and I think a lot of libraries are doing that as well,” McCauley said. “So it’s been a lot for my team to learn how that world works. And the challenge is how do you make that feel alive, feel as much as you might feel as going into a physical space and hearing an author speak or hearing a panel of people speak. I think that’s the challenge in the virtual world.”

Over the months of the shutdown, though, she said there have been examples of seeing the same community energy through the virtual events and virtual engagement with library patrons as the library strives to cultivate under normal circumstances. Moving forward, she expects the emphasis on virtual services will continue alongside the phased reopening of in-person services. Virtual services have proved convenient and reached patrons who in the past may not have been able to attend in-person public programs, she said. 

The greatest challenge with determining the phased reopening, McCauley stressed, is balancing the safety needs against the library’s important role in the community as space where “anybody can come to dream and to realize those dreams.”

Her staff is committed to leveling the playing field and tackling the challenge of ensuring that community members, who might not have access to resources, tools, and assistance without the library, still have pathways for opportunities with the altered operations moving forward. 

“Libraries have always been innovative spaces,” McCauley said. “And I think that this is the challenge for libraries right now — how do we continue to innovate regardless of what happens in terms of what the new normal looks like? So that we can still be that wonderful community resource that serves everybody and that people feel is their backyard and their home away from home.”


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