'A moving target': Libraries plan to gradually reopen with curbside service

Right up until the Wheaton Public Library had to close amid the COVID-19 pandemic, patrons rushed to stock up on books.

So much so that library card holders have been holding on to 40,151 items checked out before the shutdown and due back June 1.

After running virtual services for more than a month, libraries now are planning for what was a simpler task not so long ago: getting their books back into circulation.

"It's going to be a process," Wheaton Library Director Betsy Adamowski said. "It's going to take us a while to get into a groove, but I think once we get it all set up, we'll be able to make this work."

As the state's stay-at-home order eases some restrictions, the region's largest library systems are preparing to gradually reopen with curbside pickup, limited staff and safety precautions.

Naperville Public Library plans to begin curbside service at its three branches May 11. Elgin's Gail Borden Library District will open drive-up windows at its two branches starting May 4. Others - the Cook Memorial Public Library District in Lake County and the Wheaton library - are working out the logistics.

Librarians say returned items will be quarantined for at least 72 hours. That's about how long plastic - what's covering book jackets and DVDs - can harbor the virus, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health.

But for more conclusive research, librarians await the results of a project pursued by the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services to understand the viability of the virus on library materials.

"What we're encouraging libraries to do is really think about what they need to have in place and what they need to be confident in knowing before they start offering the service," said Diane Foote, head of the Illinois Library Association.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker has not yet addressed what the new stay-at-home rules will mean for libraries. An attorney for Reaching Across Illinois Library System, or RAILS, has advised that the provisions for nonessential retail reasonably could apply to libraries. Starting May 1, stores can offer curbside pickup and delivery of telephone and online orders.

Regardless of their ability to meet curbside demand, libraries have made "huge efforts" to serve their communities virtually while employees work remotely, RAILS Associate Director Monica Harris said.

"People are having to redesign their entire summer reading programs and move them online with the anticipation of what might be needed there," Harris said. "There's a lot of technical work happening behind the scenes as people develop and try to look for new access to e-resources. The streaming services libraries offer are getting huge usage that wasn't there before."

As audiences continue to tune into virtual programs, Gail Borden patrons will be able to access books and movies through drive-up windows with slide-out drawers.

"We're in a great position where our drive-up windows have a microphone, and it's contactless as it is right now," spokeswoman Denise Raleigh said.

There are 41,723 items checked out as the library went "fine free" for most materials and extended all due dates. But it's still accepting returns at separate drop slots and remote drop boxes and following a quarantine process for those items.

Employees who have chosen to work on-site will operate the drive-up windows.

"We are not making any employees come in, but we are happy that we have a number of individuals who would like to come in and be part of this service in a very, very safe way," Raleigh said.

In Wheaton, small groups of employees could come back into the building in shifts as early as next week, a "moving target" that would mark the first phase of a reopening plan, Adamowski said.

With 27,000 square feet on each floor, teams will have more than enough room to practice social distancing while the library remains closed to the public. Employees still have to finish catalog system training interrupted by the lockdown and start ordering new titles.

"When we closed, we literally just walked out and closed," Adamowski said.

She can't say when curbside service will begin, but it would focus first on returns and then lending materials with as little interaction as possible.

"You can imagine the community is on their edge of their seats," she said. "They want this library to start running and rolling again, so we don't want to delay that anymore than we have to, but again that's all contingent on the governor's order."

  Starting May 4, Elgin's Gail Borden Public Library District will operate drive-up windows at the Main Library and the Rakow Branch. The windows will be open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays for pickups. Brian Hill/
The Wheaton Public Library is cautiously preparing a phased approach to reopening after more than a month of coronavirus shutdowns. Daily Herald file photo
  The Nichols Library in Naperville will start curbside pickup service May 11. Library employees working curbside services will be wearings gloves, masks, a safety shield and other protective gear. Mark Welsh/
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