LIMA — If you thought the Dewey Decimal System was hard, try running a public library during a nationwide health crisis.
The current coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered how business, industry and government goes about its business. Libraries were not immune to the difficulties of maintaining their operations as the number of COVID-19 infection rates soared throughout the region.
They closed their doors to the public and furloughed employees. Once doors reopened, work spaces and public areas were dramatically altered to accommodate social distancing mandates. Health department guidelines on sanitizing public areas were quickly adopted.
Nearly a year after the pandemic reared its ugly head, library officials have found that flexibility and outside-the-box thinking is the key to finding the “new normal” for their operations.
“We were shut down completely for nine weeks beginning at the end of March,” recalls Gary Fraser, director of the Lima Public Library. A skeleton crew of library administrators remained on site during the early days of the pandemic but most staffers were sent home.
During the shutdown, Fraser said, the concept of curbside service was spawned. After the nine-week total shutdown the library began serving patrons through curbside pick-up for four more weeks before the public was finally allowed to enter the library itself.
“It was pretty successful,” Fraser said of the new curbside service. “We’ve continued to do it, and I think it’s something that will stick around.”
Most of the changes at the Auglaize County Library District revolve around enhanced health and safety measures for employees and patrons alike.
Library Director Beth Steiner said all employees now perform daily symptom assessments and are required to stay at home if symptomatic. Temperature-taking protocols have been implemented for workers and starting times of all employees have been staggered, Steiner said.
“The libraries are doing everything possible to keep our staff and the public safe during this pandemic,” she said.
Frequent cleaning of all facilities in according with Ohio Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control recommendations is conducted regularly.
“Cleaning supplies and appropriate non-medical personal protective equipment are being utilized at all locations and frequent disinfection of desks, workstations and high-contact surfaces is being done. Common areas are disinfected daily,” Steiner added.
Libraries that comprise the Putnam County Library District are closed for 30 minutes daily to allow for a thorough midday cleansing. Those sites also set aside the first hour each day strictly for at-risk populations.
Fraser said when the Lima Public Library opened its doors to the public in late June there were “a lot of changes” in place. The library installed barriers and Plexiglas, removed general seating and encouraged patrons to spend only 30 minutes inside the facility during any one visit. The number of available computers was reduced.
“Another change is that all returned items have to be deposited in the outside book return. The books are then quarantined in a garage for a week and then are sanitized before being returned to the shelves,” said Fraser. “That’s something that might remain after the pandemic is over.”
The same can be said for Plexiglas barriers, virtual programming and social distancing efforts, the director added.
Tightening their belts
Libraries have learned to do more with less during the pandemic.
“We were warned we could see up to a 25% loss in state funding. At this time we have not experienced quite that much but we have seen our funding decreased,” Steiner said. “We did implement cost-cutting measures and even with the cutbacks we’ve managed to offer new services, including free virtual tutors for all ages, book subscription services for all ages and many others.”
Fraser said the Lima district “is one of a few libraries in the state without a tax levy” to provide revenue. “We’re 100% financed by the State Public Library Fund. Yes, there has been a reduction in funding. It’s not been as bad as we originally expected, but the effects are still being felt. But through it all our circulation was only down about 10% for the year, and we’re actually pretty happy with that,” he said.