Public Libraries: Your Planning Guide for Reopening

A librarian follows her planning guide to quarantine books and clean the service counter. Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only. It does not supersede the rules and recommendations of local authorities and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

One of the biggest concerns as public libraries begin to reopen their doors is how to expand service offerings while keeping staff and patrons safe. Read the tips below to put together a planning guide for how you will adapt your services, your protocols, and your physical space to ensure everyone’s safety during the pandemic.

How you handle any of these steps should be based on the direction of your local authorities, public health officials, and library leadership. Consult with your library’s legal counsel before putting any new policies into place.

Your Planning Guide Begins with Your Staff  

You’ve probably already examined your ability to offer some of your services remotely. Are there staff members who could continue to do their jobs from home? If you don’t have one already, craft a remote working policy and share it with your staff.

Even before you open your doors to the public, you may be bringing some staff members back to prepare the building. Provide on-site staff with personal protective equipment, such as gloves, masks, and face shields, as well as hand sanitizer.

As staff members return to work in the physical building, review your attendance policy. Workers who feel they’ll be penalized for staying home when sick may attempt to come to work while still contagious. Ensure that your policy provides clear options for staff members who are ill to encourage them to stay home.

You’ll also want to consider how you will handle preventing staff who are symptomatic from coming to work. Options include providing staff with thermometers and asking them to take their temperature before they report to work or taking temperatures at the door. Make sure they also know that if there are any suspected or confirmed cases of illness in their households, they should stay home.

Make sure your entire staff understands that they must follow the guidelines for disinfecting and preventing the spread of germs recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You may wish to consider implementing a quick beginning-of-shift reminder of your new procedures and asking staff members to wash their hands before they start their shift.

Separate Staff Workspaces  

Reevaluate your work stations to determine how you can separate staff by at least six feet. Taped guidelines or floor decals are good visual reminders to stay within a designated space. You can also provide acrylic barriers or desk shields between workstations and additional bar code scanners to reduce the number of shared touchpoints for your staff members.

Other options include converting spaces such as meeting rooms into makeshift workspaces for staff members. For shared workspaces, schedule employees so there is enough time to clean thoroughly between shifts.

To cut down on the number of people gathered in one place, encourage telework whenever possible or hold meetings via videoconferencing — even when staff is in the same building.

Phase Your Opening and Set Limitations

Consider a phased approach to opening your library doors. You may want to begin by offering curbside services only. Once you open your physical space, consider designating specific morning hours for high-risk populations (such as elderly patrons) only. Decide whether you will require patrons to wear a mask to enter your library as well.

As you continue to open your doors, use patron counters to limit the number of people in the library at any one time. You can also set time limits for patrons, letting them know that there is an hour limit per visit.

If you offer or allow food and drink in your library, consider prohibiting it for the time being, as well as eliminating the use of water fountains.

Be sure to post clear signage about your new hours, services, and policies throughout your library for both staff and patrons, and communicate them through your usual promotional channels.

Prepare Your Library for Staff and Patron Safety

Explore products that will help you provide library services to your community while ensuring patron and staff well-being.

Prevent the Spread of Germs

The best defense against spreading germs is prevention. Provide a portable sink or disinfectant station at the entrance to your library, and conduct regular and thorough cleaning of high-touch surfaces, such as doorknobs, light switches, railings, faucets, computers, phones, and furniture arms, with a disinfectant or UV sterilizer. Display printed cleaning schedules in shared spaces to let staff and patrons know when these areas have been disinfected.

Place clear signage in bathrooms and other high-profile areas reminding patrons to wash their hands frequently, especially after they cough or sneeze. Ensure there are wastebaskets available throughout your library.

Just like you’re doing with your staff, you’ll want to consider how you can prevent patrons who are symptomatic from coming into contact with your facility. Options include implementing temperature-taking with a forehead thermometer for anyone entering your facility. If taking temperatures feels too invasive, simply post large signage at your entrance letting people know that if they or their family members are exhibiting symptoms, they should not enter the library.

If someone does become symptomatic while in your library, have a plan for how you will isolate them until they can leave your facility. You’ll then want to quarantine any areas they were in, if possible. After 24 hours, thoroughly disinfect the area.

Control the Flow of Traffic

If you are only opening curbside pickup or allowing patrons to enter one at a time, consider creating a traffic flow line with orange cones or other markers from the door down the sidewalk or other area outside of the library. Have clearly posted signs asking patrons to stand next to the cones until the person ahead of them has moved forward.

Within the library, control the flow of traffic with traffic control posts, and place floor decals throughout to show patrons where to walk and stand.

Consider making your stacks one-way only, with a serpentine flow through them. Place arrow decals on the floor to help patrons understand the flow of traffic through the aisles. If you are concerned about materials being handled while browsing, place booktrucks or bins at the end of each aisle for patrons to place any materials they’ve handled.

If there are areas of the library you are not yet ready to open to the public, block them with traffic control posts, caution tape, barriers, or orange traffic cones.

Provide Protective Barriers and Sanitation Stations

Limit close-contact interactions by placing clear pass-through health shields between staff and patrons at your service desk. Define where patrons can stand with floor decals to ensure distance between users.

Consider adding hand-washing stations throughout the library. For areas in which you cannot provide access to soap and water, provide hand sanitizer stations. Encourage their use with clear signage throughout the library.

Encourage Self-Checkout

If your library has a mobile app, let patrons know that they can check out books on their apps and come to the library to pick up holds.

Within the library, you can encourage patrons to use self-checkout stations, which have already become more popular at grocery and discount stores. Place signage and disinfecting materials at each station, and ask patrons to wipe down anything they touch with disinfecting wipes after they check out. To ensure their safety, patrons can wipe down surfaces before they touch them as well.

Reevaluate In-Person Programming

Your in-person programming may be on hold right now, but that doesn’t mean all programming has to be put on pause. If you’re already doing virtual programming, you’ve probably gotten a good handle on how to deliver the greatest impact. Services you can offer include virtual book clubs and storytimes, as well as providing take-home kits or online resources for activities to do at home. You’ll find a wealth of ideas in the following resources:

Offer Virtual Services 

Consider other services you can provide virtually or through curbside pickup to limit the amount of patrons populating your physical space at any one time, including library card signup and renewal. Some services, such as printing or faxing, might become “by appointment only” so you can control the number of patrons entering at a time.

Although it’s a difficult decision, you may need to suspend some services for a period of time if you cannot alter them for physical distancing or offer them virtually.

Separate Computer Stations

If barriers or desk shields cannot be implemented between computers, considering removing some of your computers or moving them to different areas to separate patrons. Individual carrels can be set up as personal computer stations. Reconsider your time limits on them to ensure there is enough time to disinfect between uses.

Many libraries are also extending their Wi-Fi into their parking lots, which may help cut down on in-person computer use. If you are able to do this, be sure to get the word out to patrons that you have this service available.

Supplying tablets for checkout can help alleviate use of your in-house computers. Place protective cases on them for heavy-duty use, and clean them between patrons with disinfecting wipes.

Reconsider Your Room Layouts

Make a list of all the areas in your library that are set up for people to be in close proximity to each other, including meeting rooms, computer stations, children’s areas, etc. Evaluate whether these spaces can be made safer by separating them with barriers. Use partitions, desk shields, sound barriers, or mobile whiteboards to cordon off or separate spaces into smaller areas and discourage gathering.

Next, look at the furniture layout in your spaces. Can you rearrange furniture pieces to ensure 6 feet of distance between patrons? If not, consider removing some pieces of furniture or moving them off to the side of the room. If furniture cannot be moved, use removable tape to mark large Xs on them so patrons know not to use those items.

Focus on retaining the furniture that has antimicrobial coverings or is easily cleaned, such as vinyl or plastic pieces. Your flexible, mobile tables can be moved apart from each other or folded, nested, and stored to reduce the number of seating spaces.

Cut down on people congregating near power outlets by placing portable power stations throughout the building.

Close your meeting rooms to the public for the time being, or reduce the number of people allowed in the rooms at one time and increase your cleaning procedures. If you don’t already, consider charging a small fee for use of the rooms to cover additional cleaning costs. If you choose to close some or all of your meeting rooms, you can convert them into storage rooms for quarantined materials or workspaces for staff.

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.

Modify Your Children’s Area

Similar to other parts of your library, there are some ways you can set up your children’s area to help prevent the spread of germs. Separate the furniture to help children and their caregivers maintain distance from others. Store toys, manipulatives, and games until your state authorities and your library leadership deem it safe to make them available again.

Set up cleaning protocols throughout the day for the entire children’s area.

When you resume in-person storytimes, place carpet squares throughout your storytime area at a safe distance from each other, and let children know this is their special spot that they should stay on.

Quarantine Your Circulating Materials

Disinfecting circulating materials may seem like a daunting task, however, research suggests that time is the best disinfectant. Create a plan to label and quarantine returned materials before they are placed back into circulation to help prevent the spread of germs.

Read “How to Quarantine Public Library Materials” to see how.

Continue to Prepare for the Future

Hold a weekly debriefing with your staff to discuss the policies and procedures that have been working and not working, and brainstorm alternatives for problem areas. Consider areas that might affect future budgets. If more staff members are working from home, do you need to budget for additional equipment or more IT support? Above all, document your plans now and for the future.

Take your learnings and use them to prepare to act quickly in the future should you be forced to respond to another similar situation. How quickly can you adapt your services? Are you prepared to make the switch to virtual services fairly seamlessly?

None of us expected to experience something like the COVID-19 pandemic in our lifetimes, and we have been forced to react to the best of our abilities. The good news is that we’ve gained valuable lessons from this experience and can apply them to our plans for the future.


Liz Bowie

Liz Bowie

Marketing Content Manager at Demco, Inc.
Liz is the Marketing Content Manager for Demco. Her background includes editorial management and product development of innovative and time-saving tools for schools and libraries, with an emphasis on Common Core, literacy and math. The products she and her team have developed, including classroom games, learning centers and professional development resources, have garnered 46 industry awards for excellence in education. Liz is passionate about promoting literacy through her work and the work of others. If you are interested in sharing your ideas and programming tips on Demco’s Ideas and Inspiration blog or have ideas for topics you’d like to see covered, contact Liz at