Advice from Public Libraries That Have Reopened
As public libraries around the country begin to open their doors to the public again, library leaders and staff have had mixed feelings — excitement about being able to expand services for their communities tempered by worry about keeping workers and patrons safe.
To help guide other public libraries as they reopen during this first phase, we surveyed library workers to see what advice they would give those planning to reopen. Here’s what they had to say.
Put Together a Solid Plan (but Be Ready to Pivot)
Having a solid plan in place was the leading piece of advice on the best way to begin to reopen your doors to the public. Survey respondents noted the importance of involving staff in the creation of your plan, and if possible, forming a reopening committee. This committee can focus on the advice of state and local health departments but also help make decisions based on your own library buildings, staffing, and resources. Survey respondents recommended the following tips when creating your plan.
- Expand your network. Keep in direct and regular contact with local library directors, politicians, and health departments, and find out what other public libraries and municipalities are doing. Read through other libraries’ reopening plans and consult resources such as “Public Libraries: Your Planning Guide for Reopening.” Contact some of the library leaders who are ahead of you on the reopening journey and ask for advice and resources.
- Survey your staff. One way to ensure all staff is heard is to survey them about their current and anticipated workload and how they feel about offering different services. Their input will be important, since they understand the day-to-day operations of the library and the community they serve. Share the information you receive with your board and use it to inform your plan.
- Create a staged plan. Remember that you do not have to do everything at once. Think through the services that make the most sense to offer first, second, and third, and then create a timeline for them — such as planning for a month of curbside services, then expanding into computer use by appointment, and so on.
Your plan should be simple and broad enough to be adapted as your library moves through reopening phases. It should also be clear what is expected from staff and patrons at each phase.
- Think through the scenarios. Involving frontline staff in the creation of your plan will help everyone think through the flow of procedures before opening. Once you have an idea of how you think things will work, practice walking through them and playing out the scenarios. Take note of any areas of concern, such as traffic flow problems or high-touch areas you didn’t initially recognize.
Consider how you will address scenarios with difficult patrons, accommodate high-risk staff, and isolate staff or patrons who exhibit symptoms of illness.
- Evaluate safety resources. Make sure you have enough supplies on hand, including PPE for staff (and patrons if budget allows), hand sanitizer, cleaning and disinfecting supplies, and so on.
- Implement limitations. These can include limitations on services, number of people in the library at one time, and the amount of time patrons can be in the library. You may also wish to limit access to certain areas of the library, such as meeting rooms and the children’s area.
It can be difficult to put a pause on services, but many of those surveyed stressed the importance of starting slow. Look at your organizational mission and assess the greatest customer needs, then place those up against the safety of your staff and patrons to find the right balance of services. As you gain more public health data and learnings from your first stage of opening, you can adjust your plan.
- Anticipate future problems. Make a list of all the issues you can see arising after reopening, from running out of supplies to dealing with difficult patrons. Then brainstorm ways you can respond to them to figure out the best policies to put in place.
- Implement training for how to deal with patrons. Your staff is already skilled at customer service, but with new fears and emotions running high, it’s a good idea to review how you will communicate with and serve your patrons.
Some negative behaviors can stem from fear, so it’s important to remember to serve with patience and compassion, but equally important to allow your staff to be vocal about things that make them feel unsafe. Reinforce training on how to handle noncompliant patrons respectfully, and make a habit of focusing on positive interactions.
Many survey respondents suggested under-promising and over-delivering on your services at this time. There will be many unknowns, so if you can, manage patron expectations by letting them know what you are currently doing and that your processes may change in the future.
You can also look to other types of businesses that have been offering curbside services or have been open for longer to get advice and how to deal with noncompliant patrons. What has worked for them, and how can you emulate it?
- Include steps for quarantining materials. Create a plan for how you will quarantine materials and ensure there are detailed, documented steps for staff to follow. Read “How to Quarantine Public Library Materials” to learn more.
- Communicate your plan to stakeholders. Communicate your plan to your board and other stakeholders for approval. Once you have an approved plan, communicate to staff, in clear and positive language, what will be expected at each phase and the steps you are taking to keep everyone safe.
Provide ample training on your policies and be prepared to communicate changes, and offer specific messaging for different scenarios, such as getting pushback from patrons about why some services are limited or restricted.
- Remain flexible. Overall, it’s important to remain flexible, as issues you did not predict may crop up and you may need to adjust your plan and policies accordingly. Re-evaluate your plan on a weekly basis, and keep the health and well-being of your staff and the community that you serve as your main priority.
Start with a Soft Opening
Many survey respondents stated that it was helpful to open the library with a soft launch for the first week, relying on word of mouth instead of advertising a grand reopening. This helped allay staff fears, allowing them to feel comfortable with one process before moving forward to the next, and gave them time to adjust procedures and signage as needed.
Learnings from the first few weeks that libraries have had their doors open include the realization that it doesn’t hurt to be overprepared in case you have to implement a new process quickly. Library respondents also stated that curbside has been very popular, and although they have opened their doors for normal checkout procedures, many are planning to continue offering it as a service in the future.
Communicate Your Opening and Your Procedures
Once you’re ready to broadcast your services, use your library’s email list, website, social media channels, and local partners such as your Chamber of Commerce to give your community clear and detailed information about your current services and what they can expect when they come to the library. Seeing a new layout, acrylic barriers, and masks in your physical space can be disconcerting for some, so make sure you let people know ahead of time what they will find at your library.
You’ll also want to post clear signage at all entrances to your library letting patrons know your new hours, procedures, and policies. If you are having people check in as they come in, reiterate your policies to them in a positive way.
Make sure staff is prepared to reassure nervous patrons that you have measures in place to protect them. All staff should be prepped ahead of time with talking points so that the public receives consistent messaging about new operating and safety procedures.
Focus on Your Mental Health
Many survey respondents drew attention to the importance of taking care of your mental health. They advised everyone to take it one day at a time, work slowly and methodically, focus on the good days, and be kind to one another.
Take Courage from These Responses to Library Reopenings
So what can you really expect when you reopen? Many library workers stated that they were less busy in their first few weeks than they expected, which allowed them to get used to the new processes.
Respondents also stated that, although they were nervous, their reopenings went very smoothly and were quite manageable, which they attributed to having a good plan in place and all staff on board with the plan.
Some respondents did say that they experienced patrons asking for full library services to be put back in place, underscoring the importance of having good talking points for staff and a good communication plan about what you’re currently offering. However, for the most part, patrons themselves were thrilled and grateful to be back in the library and were appreciative and understanding of the new restrictions.
Learn How to Design Your Library for a Post-COVID-19 World
Download this guide to discover how you can promote safety while still creating a welcoming library environment. Learn how to choose the right furnishings, and get design solutions that make patrons feel safe while still enabling you to provide essential services.