City Library Leaders Discuss Pandemic Response

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When 2020 began, the city’s three library systems — New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Library — were building on their initial success in obtaining strong funding in last year’s budget.

All three were in the process of providing an ever-expanding array of services to the public. They were also in the process of helping out with the 2020 Census and training workers and volunteers to assist patrons in filling out the forms in kiosks installed in the branches for that purpose.

The libraries had begun to expand to meet patron needs, offering toddler story time, free computer access, and wifi. Along with a growing collection of multimedia items, the three library systems were able to provide afterschool, adult learning, and computer classes.

When the year began, the city’s libraries — after years of underfunding — were vibrant, and the 220 branches that comprise the three public library systems had become safe spaces for the patrons and staff.

By mid-January, there were stories about a deadly virus spreading worldwide. By the end of February, it became apparent that the first cases of the novel coronavirus had appeared in New York City. By the first week of March, the first cases were confirmed. 

In the following two weeks, the virus spread, and by mid-March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ordered a state of emergency as the city began to shut down amidst what turned into a major health crisis.

On March 12, the New York Public Library closed its doors. Shortly thereafter, on March 16, the Queens Public Library shut down.

For John Hyslop, President of the Queens Library Guild Local 1321, and DC 37 Secretary, it was a relief.

“The library was actually closed because it was extremely chaotic. There was a lot of talk about the virus. We knew that it was possible to get sick and that the disease was deadly and all the staff wanted us to close because we’re open to the public,” Hyslop said.

“There were no safety protocols in place. So, when we closed, it was a good way to get a breather.”

The Brooklyn Public Library also closed, and Brooklyn Library Guild Local 1482 President Ronaldo Barber was relieved.

“There were no set guidelines as to how we were to proceed, so yes, there was relief,” Barber said. “In the beginning, everybody was scared because nobody wanted to get this virus and bring it home.”

Valentin Colon, President of New York Public Library Guild Local 1930, said, “We actually closed a week before anybody else did, and that was against the city’s instructions. The Board of Trustees and senior management took the position that the safety of the staff and the public was a big issue. There was also the safety of the buildings. So they took that decision. They made it and so we closed on March 13.”

Leonard Paul, President of Quasi Public Employees, Local 374, said some of his members were caught off guard when the library first closed down. “There was not a lot of information about the virus. All we knew was that this thing was very dangerous and contagious, but it took people by surprise,” he said.

“We were thankful that the library closed when it did. I represent a lot of the security and custodians and maintainers. They’re in close contact with the public, so we were relieved that this was the right thing to do — just shut it down, and wait it out,” Paul said.

The four library presidents decided early on to remain in communication with one another, sharing information as they received it from their respective management and from the city.

Also during the shutdown, the library systems have been doing what they can to provide services, with members working remotely and providing their digital collections.

“NYPL has been doing this for a long time,” Colon said. “A lot of the materials are being digitized so that it’s available. That’s what they’re going to continue to do. And they’re going to enhance that.”

Hyslop agreed. “From March 23, all three systems have bought a lot more e-books and increased our e-book collections considerably,” he said. “It used to be kind of annoying to wait for a book, but now books are available. And that requires a lot of cataloging too, and processing of those.

“In programming, we’ve done our best to offer more online programs for the public. I know the adult learning centers that we have, where we teach English, they started offering online courses for adult literacy,” Hyslop said.

As for reopening, all spoke of a phased-in approach, with a few branches opening up, but they are waiting for more information.

“All three systems are consistent in waiting for guidelines and advice from the city as to when and how. All three systems are going to open up slowly with a few branches in different regions,” Barber said.

He also noted the long-term impact of the pandemic. 

“We know that telecommuting is going to be something that we’re going to have to implement in our everyday living because this drastically changed our lives,” Barber said. “That’s going to change the way we do business in the future in every one of our systems and branches.”


Photos: Mike LEe

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