Much of southwestern Pennsylvania is moving into the “yellow” phase of reopening this week. Library staff in those counties can begin to plan to resume in-person operations, as well as order supplies such as gloves and masks to protect employees and patrons. However, it will be a while until they can open their doors, said Suzanne Thinnes, communications manager for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, or CLP.
“Safety is paramount,” she said. “Opening up our system’s physical spaces is going to be very slow, it’s going to be deliberate, and it’s going to occur in stages that are in accordance with the commonwealth’s guidelines.”
The proposed Framework for Reopening Libraries remains under review by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Even once approved, it will be some time before libraries can return to “normal” function, said Glenn Miller, the state’s deputy secretary of education and commissioner for libraries.
“Over time, libraries have really grown as centers of community,” he said. “People tend to spend time, to linger, to interact with one another,” which will be severely limited by coronavirus.
Libraries will have to take particular caution with children and teenagers who “may not understand social distancing or may forget about social distancing when the stay at home orders are lifted,” said Thinnes.
Aside from a few days during Snowmageddon in 2010 and a few weeks during the influenza pandemic of the early 20th century, CLP has never been forced to close, said Thinnes. Even though the buildings aren’t open, many library services are available, she said.
The WiFi at branches remains on so people can park or stand nearby to get online, and anyone can call the library for job help, social service referrals, or materials. Staff are also working to establish a contactless pickup system to allow people to safely borrow physical materials.
While grappling with the continued closure, CLP and other libraries are waiting to see what weeks of limited economic activity will mean for their finances. About two-thirds of CLP’s funding comes from the Allegheny Regional Asset District, which saw a 20 percent drop in revenue in March.
“We have worked really hard to diversify our funding stream so that we have many different funders to assist with our day to day operations,” said Thinnes. “Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 pandemic crisis will most likely affect all of those funding streams.”
The CARES Act allocated $50 million to the Institute for Museum and Library Services, but Pennsylvania expects to see only about $1.1 million. There are more than 600 library locations across the commonwealth.
Funding has been a chronic problem for libraries, and the pandemic will not improve the situation, said Miller. However, libraries “are the ultimate efficiency in terms of public service,” he said. They purchase materials once and share them over and over again.
Miller said going forward they must press the case for stronger investment in libraries.