One Director’s Rural Library Reopening Experience
Cathy Farley, Director of White County Public Library in Tennessee, recently spoke with Jackie Flavin during the first episode of Demco’s Open Book Webcast about her team’s library reopening experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The White County Public Library serves a population of 27,000. Like many public libraries, the staff closed the doors to the public in March 2020 to help protect employees and patrons. During the seven and half weeks the physical library was closed, library staff continued working in the building, offering such services as curbside pickup; virtual storytimes; e-resources; and printing, notary, and unemployment assistance.
To learn what Cathy had to say about what it was like to plan for and reopen their library’s doors to the public, read the show notes or watch the full interview in Demco’s Open Book Webcast Episode 1: Reopening a Rural Public Library below.
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How did you decide to open?
Our county is rural, and we do not have many cases of COVID-19. At this point, most of those people have recovered, so we have not been hit hard like a lot of areas in our nation. For us, reopening was more about getting back to business in hopes of being able to deliver needed services and allow people access to the building and materials we have here.
Were you getting a lot of requests from patrons to reopen?
Yes and no. We were getting vocal requests from the same patrons over and over again. You know those patrons — you have them too. Most of our patrons were happy with curbside pickup service.
What did you do to get ready to open on May 11?
Of the 11 people who work here, four are full time. The four of us sat down and asked, “How do we do this and keep everyone here safe?” The staff here is the number one priority. Keeping the public safe matters to us too, so we also asked, “How do we safely serve?”
We started by pulling all our periodicals and closing off our genealogy room. We didn’t know how to sanitize those things between users, so we closed all those areas. Our meeting rooms aren’t open either. We adjusted our hours as well. Normally, we are open 60 hours per week; right now we’re open 24 hours a week.
We ordered plexiglass shields and masks. We do not require the public to wear a mask, but we wear masks. We also got face shields because wearing masks makes you hot, and people can’t hear you and can’t understand you. Getting face shields was a real morale boost.
We also started measuring the floor and moving chairs. Our main floor had about 150 to 160 chairs. Right now there are about 12. The furniture we’re not using is in the meeting rooms that aren’t being used right now. Some of the tables are being used to block collections that aren’t accessible right now. We also turned the benches around in our entryway so people won’t sit or gather there. We did a lot of things like that to keep people from lingering.
We only have two of our 24 computers up and going because our computers were way too close together. But we do carry laptops and iPads out to patrons’ cars. They have to give us their driver’s license to use them. People can access our network from their devices and print to our printer, and we bring their printouts out to their parking space.
We’ve taken a podium out to the front lobby, and one of our employees is there to greet patrons.
I don’t want some of my older employees on the front lines right now because they are higher risk, so I stand out in the lobby as well. My shift every day at the door is usually about an hour and a half. When someone walks through the door, the first thing we ask them to do is wash their hands. We don’t have hand sanitizer because it’s hard to find right now. We’ve had a lot of trouble sourcing things like that.
Our janitorial staff is from a local group that deals with developmentally delayed adults, and they are not back yet. So there are eight of us right now that are running the facility, cleaning the facility, producing all the video content for summer reading, and handling every state meeting that has to be attended. It’s not easy, but it’s kind of a relief to have our doors open and be back serving people.
Before the pandemic, was your staff each focused on their own area or was everyone a generalist?
We’re all able to run the desk, check out books, answer questions on the phone, and troubleshoot a basic computer issue, but we do have a children’s librarian, a teen services librarian, an adult services librarian, a genealogy librarian, an assistant director, and me. And we have technology librarians as front desk workers.
Now, when the library is open, you’re either a door greeter or you’re front desk staff. We don’t go through the stacks with people; we don’t assist them with making selections; we stay out of their bubble and assist them from afar. That’s the most challenging on the computers because people were used to us helping them so much more than we are able to now.
The unemployment system in Tennessee on the computers is a mess, and I don’t think we’re the only state that has that problem. It’s so overwhelming, and we have people who have never used the system before and they need a lot of help. We are not really able to help as much because of the pandemic.
Do you find as the weeks go by that it’s hard to remember to be cautious?
With the people who come every day, that barrier keeps sliding and sliding. I have to remind them that they can’t lean on my podium. It’s hard. These people know us, and they are here three or four times a week.
It sounds like your library is really the heart of the community.
We try to be. If you’re an essential county service, then you have to be serving; you have to be everything they need. There are other ways to find books or find a notary, but they come here because we make the visit worthwhile. Because the people here care about them. The people here are plugged into their lives and are part of their lives. If you’re not, you’re not going to be a very effective library, you’re not going to lead an effective staff, and in turn, your budget’s going to look very different than what it needs to look like.
Your staff sounds wonderful and like they handled this crisis really well. Has leading them through this been a challenge?
When we decided we were going to reopen, our library board came in with us and the library staff and we sat down. I asked them, “What scares you? Tell me what you’re afraid of.” We made a list of all our fears. It was mostly things like, “I’m afraid this patron who is used to doing this is not going to adapt to doing that.” So we said, let’s get ahead of our fears. And we called our problem patrons, and we let them know that things are not going to be the same when they walk through the doors. We told them that to keep us all safe, to keep our county headed in the right direction with our illness numbers, we’re changing a lot of things, and we outlined the changes for them.
We also talked among ourselves about what a successful opening looks like. How many people are going to walk through these doors? How many people are we going to let in the building? How many people is too many? We had so many conversations.
We purposely opened on Monday and Thursday from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. because our school system does free lunch distribution from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., so we were piggybacking off of that. The parents who were still working and could not pick up the homework packets from the schools could come here and we could print out those packets. Then we said, what hours do we need the rest of the week, and another staff member said, “We need to do an early morning.” So we picked Wednesday and Saturday as our early mornings.
Deciding which hours to open was a process that we all worked through. It wasn’t me saying, this is what we’re going to do, now all get behind me.” I’m not that style of leader. Let’s talk about it and we’ll figure it out. I don’t expect them to do anything that I’m not going to do.
How do you see your library emerging from this? What are the good things that have come from this pandemic?
I think people will remember who was there for them when they needed them the most. We never closed; we never stopped services. If you’re not meeting people where they are, finding out what their needs are, assessing what you can do to help them and then doing it, you’re not serving the public.
Our services changed and our building looks different, but the core of who we are is still the same. Our mission is still the same. Our desire to be helpers is still the same. People look for things in their life that are constant and consistent, quality things, places they know they can go when things are wrong.