Our local public libraries shut down in March because of the pandemic. They remained closed until this past week, when they partially opened for curbside pickup.
Here I offer a glimpse of how it worked. My goal is partly to keep documenting parts of the COVID-19 experience, as well as to show how libraries are evolving. I haven’t heard from many other folks who have tried it out. I did take a lot of photos.
I learned about the partial opening from a mass email announcement, plus excited comments from my fellow library fan daughter, Gwynneth. The way the new process is supposed to work is that patrons* find and reserve books, DVDs, and other materials through the system’s web-based catalog. If they own a copy and it’s there, staff grab the materials, check them out, and set them aside in labeled bags. The library then emails the patron to give them a 24-48 hour window to visit in person and to pick up their items from tables in the library lobby.
They call it “Contact-Free Pick Up service.” I have now run through this process twice.
tl;dr – it works.
On Monday I requested five books (history, literature, science fiction). For the next two days I checked on my account. Each item had a status which changed over time, including “Shipping” and “Processing.”
On Wednesday morning an email arrived. It reiterated the new process, listed all of the system’s libraries and their business hours, told me which books were ready, and gave me 24-48 hours to haul myself over and grab the goods. The email also told me what to do for each tranche of the library system: ping them if the books were at a neighborhood branch, or just come on over if a regional library held them.
As soon as I could I drove over to the Bull Run Regional Library – and driving is weird to me now, since I have scarcely driven anywhere since February. Traffic in the Manassas area has picked up and was close to pre-pandemic levels.
The parking lot was almost perfectly empty.
I masked up and walked over. I was surprised to see a librarian and patron – both masked – talking with each other over a cart outside the front door.
It turns out that during that hour librarians were busy working in the lobby, adding and rearranging bags and their materials. They assigned one of their number (on the left, above) to run interference between patrons and materials, parking lot and lobby. We were to tell the interface librarian our name, and she would hunt the bag(s), then wheel it/them out on a cart (as seen above).
I told the librarian my name. Into the library she went. In under a minute she brought me two bags on the cart. I asked her more questions, then headed to the car to stash my treasure and drive home.
On Friday another email arrived, informing me that one more book was ready to be picked up. Again I drove over. Traffic was the same (almost pre-pandemic) as was the parking lot (empty). I masked myself and walked over.
This time there was no interface librarian. The library door opened up and let me into the lobby. No other person was in sight. Now I could see tables covered with bags.
I hunted for my bag, but it wasn’t there. As I rummaged, thinking someone moved or misfiled it, another patron came in. They were swift, finding and grabbing their bag then exiting in just a few seconds. They were masked.
Still no luck for me, so I called the help line (you can almost see it on the central white board in the picture above). They told me to wait for a minute. Then a masked librarian appeared, bag in hand and apology ready. It turns out the A-B table was just too crowded for the number of items needed. In fact, nearly all of the tables looked crammed.
I thanked her. She complimented me on my Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast shirt, then I left, taking my latest goodie with me. On the way out I noticed a table in the front door space, filled with free stuff for folks to take.
What can I deduce from this experience, besides the fact that Chuck Wendig really knows how to write a thriller?
First, I am reminded that public librarians are heroic public servants who can adapt to circumstances.
Second, I learned from this Twitter thread that “Contact-Free Pick Up service” is much better than opening up the rest of the library. Seriously, read that horrific account to see some ways things can go very badly.
Third, look at those tables again. Note how many items are there. It’s a good example of how many people still really want libraries for the physical materials they preserve and render access to. Even after more than a decade of workable ebooks and streaming media, even during a global pandemic, plenty of us still want to borrow books and more from libraries.
That’s it from my week’s experience. What’s the public library situation where you are?
*”Patron” is the word used exclusively through this library system, as far as I can tell. I haven’t heard “user” or any other term.