skip to main content
caption: The Seattle Public Library.
Enlarge Icon
The Seattle Public Library.

When can we go into the library again? Not soon. Here’s why

In the Puget Sound region, you can go into a big box store and browse for goods. So why can’t you go into a library and browse for books?

One reason is that libraries are more than books – a lot more.

Take patron Kyshaun Wilson. Last week he stopped by the Capitol Hill branch of the Seattle Public Library after work for a pit-stop before busing home to Issaquah.

The bathrooms are open, but the computers and printers are closed.

“It really sucks,” he said. "I had to print off my temporary ID because I lost my wallet. And I had to go to the FedEx to do that. Usually you could do it at the library for free.”

Also, the library used to be great for charging your phone.

“Sometimes you're hustling and bustling and you just forget,” Wilson said.

But confirmed cases of Covid-19 are at record highs in the region, so Wilson is cautious.

RELATED: WA Covid-19 cases reach record highs as holidays approach

“I want all these things open but then if we have another freakin’ big cycle of people getting Covid, then what?” he said. “So I'm for it and I'm against it at the same time.”

Be ready by 2021

With libraries closed, many people can’t access parts of society that the pandemic has increasingly pushed online. That includes library programming itself, such as Zoom story-time and English language practice groups.

At the same time, many libraries have transitioned to curbside pick-up.

Now, the library systems are preparing to allow people inside. In the move that surprised many librarians, the governor changed the rules more than a month ago to allow 25% capacity for patrons in Phase 2 counties.

Library managers are trying to figure out everything from air flow and plexiglass screens to the right way to disinfect computer keyboards. There’s no set timeline for Seattle Public Libraries, but many in the Puget Sound region estimate they’ll be ready for you in-person December or January.

By the end of the year, visitors will be able to use laptops, WiFi, and printers at the Lakewood and Fife locations of the Pierce County Library System. More locations may open in 2021, according to the library system.

Access to technology is one of the most pressing needs for patrons, executive director Georgia Lomax said.

“You have three kids and two parents who are trying to share the same internet, and there's not enough bandwidth for it. You have seniors who need to do their health visits online now with their doctor. You have people trying to apply for jobs on their phone,” she said. “We have people who live in areas that don't even have broadband access, or even cell access.”

But letting people back into the library during the pandemic is complicated, Lomax said.

“People are used to coming to the library and staying -- hang out in the children's area with your kids and use the computers, look at books, play with the dinosaurs,” she said.

People touch everything, more so than at, say, a grocery store.

“It's not like you grab your green beans and put it in your cart and go,” Lomax said.

Expect to see masks, screens between librarians, and air purifiers

Adapting the library branches for the Covid era has come with surprises.

For example, you can't just handy-wipe a keyboard because it removes the letters, Lomax said. So the library ordered UV light boxes to rid the laptops of germs.

The Everett Public Library tentatively plans to begin limited in-person service December 1, though that could be pushed back, said library director Abigail Cooley.

The library won’t have time limits, but they won’t encourage patrons to linger either, she said.

Expect to see masks, lots of screens between librarians and the public, and some little portable air purifiers.

Library staff, the HR safety manager and the HVAC technician did a walk-through of the building identifying spots where air flow wasn’t so great, Cooley said.

The library has also increased airflow to the max the HVAC system can handle, she said.

With so many details to work through, it’s like the library was in a Choose Your Own Adventure book, Cooley said, where each decision caused a chain of consequences and more decisions.

“If we say there is going to be no seating, what happens because of that?” she said. “Yes, we may not have people sitting for a long period of time, but maybe we're denying someone who's a little bit older or might have hurt their knee the day before and needs to sit down for a brief moment.”

Be careful of what you touch

Once we can go back inside libraries, it won’t be like before the pandemic.

Librarians can’t literally be “hands-on” anymore, said King County Library System executive director Lisa Rosenblum.

“I suppose because everybody has to wear a face covering, there's going to be a lot of long-distance – I won't say shouting – but we'll have to be a little louder, because we can't be next to you helping you with your search on a computer,” she said.

After January 1, a portion of King County Library branches will be open for limited capacity in-person services, including the Kent location, Rosenblum said.

With a new time limit in place, you’ll have one hour to use the computers and browse the books.

But, be careful of what you touch.

“If you touch something, we prefer you put it on a table, and we will collect it every hour, put it in our quarantine bins, and then we'll reshelve it,” Rosenblum said.

The book and library material quarantine lasts for three days, though the governor’s guidelines stipulate 24 hours.

Adapting to a changing world

Another complexity: just making sure there’s enough physical space inside the building.

Curbside pickup outside the buildings actually meant changing a lot inside the buildings, said Seattle Public Library circulation services manager Bo Kinney.

“We've had to spread out places for staff to take their breaks and eat, take off their masks without being close to other staff in the building.”

Now they’re trying to figure out how to add patrons back in safely, he said. As the weather turns cold and rainy, that’s even more important.

A vital library service is just being a warm, dry place.

“Prior to the pandemic and our closure that was a huge piece of what we were able to offer to the community,” he said. “That's one that's really, really challenging for us right now.”

Adapting to a changing world is not new for libraries.

Georgia Lomax with the Pierce County Library System said she remembers when librarians considered lending videos and DVDs or letting patrons check email controversial.

“It used to be that paperback books were some crazy newfangled thing, and should libraries really spend their money on paperbacks?” Lomax said. “I'm not even exaggerating.”

Now the pandemic is forcing even greater adaptation.

“We've just been reimagining what does library service look like? How do we make sure we serve the people who need us and, you know, evolve? That's the world we're living in now.”