If you’re missing your local public library, take heart: A gradual reopening is on the way, maybe even before the end of the month. But don’t expect to be able to enter your local branch anytime soon — instead, you’ll be picking up books via curbside service. And your holds list might not get fulfilled right away. Many of the most popular books in the library system were checked out just before the pandemic closure, and processing those returns — when they come in — will take time: 417,000 books for the Seattle Public Library system (SPL); 800,000 for King County Library System (KCLS).

“We’ll have to manage expectations,” said SPL Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner in a telephone interview Thursday. People are ready and excited for the libraries to reopen, he said, but things will need to be taken slowly.

It’s not quite clear yet exactly what reopening for public libraries will look like — or when it might happen. Phase 2, which will allow limited circulation of books via curbside service (only employees may enter library buildings in this phase), is at least two weeks away for King County; possibly longer. As the county moves into Phase 1.5 of coronavirus reopening, Turner and KCLS Director Lisa Rosenblum said that their emphasis is on getting staff back into library buildings — with appropriate social distancing protocols, and quarantine for newly returned items (which must remain separate from other items for 24 hours) — and on addressing the backlog left over from the shutdown in March.

All city and county library staffers — about 700 for SPL, 1300 for KCLS — stayed employed throughout the shutdown, with essential workers keeping the buildings maintained and most others, including librarians, working from home. Turner said some of SPL’s staff members worked in other city departments during the closure; others worked remotely administering the library’s many online programs and phone services.

“Right now, our buildings are pretty much a mess,” said Rosenblum, referencing the rapid short-notice closure. “We need to straighten things out and get our books back.” To get back to circulating books, she said, the most popular items need to keep moving — and currently, most of those are checked out. Turner also noted another backlog: new book ordering and shipments, which had to be paused during the closure but can resume once there’s staff in the building to process them.

As SPL staffers begin to return to the branches, they’ve got something to celebrate: The library this week was named Library of the Year by Library Journal, the country’s largest trade publication for librarians, founded more than 140 years ago. In a cover story, Library Journal praised the Seattle library system for its ability to evolve and change, writing, “In recent years, SPL has turned its attention outward, actively listening to community needs and transforming its work to make equity a top priority.”


Turner wonders if the community might have different needs post-pandemic. Some library patrons, he said, might find that they prefer electronic use of the library, though many may be eager to hold books in their hands again. And he notes that it will surely be some time before large groups can gather for library programs.

A current and ongoing library initiative at SPL, Future Ready Library, has been examining how the library would prepare for nine possible disrupters, including artificial intelligence, climate change and rising inequities. “We did not have a pandemic,” Turner noted wryly, “in the nine disrupters we were working on.”

Rosenblum also thinks that the pandemic will unexpectedly accelerate the moving of many patrons from print to digital materials. But she’s eager for the lending of books to return. “We’re getting a lot of demand for books back in the hands of children,” she said, particularly in South King County. “Not everyone has great WiFi, not everyone has their own laptop. Parents really want the books back!”

Laughing, she said that “if someone had told me three months ago that I’d be excited that we were bringing books to people’s cars, I would have said you’re crazy. But now I’m excited, we’ll be able to bring books to people’s cars! And if you don’t have a car, we’ll give you a bag of books to take home. So I’m excited. We’ve all had to adjust.”

In other library updates, the Washington Talking Book and Braille Library has resumed fulfilling audiobook and Braille-book orders after being entirely closed during the pandemic. Gov. Jay Inslee approved a waiver to allow the WTBBL to begin providing limited services immediately, rather than waiting for a later phase. The WTBBL provides audiobooks and Braille books to Washington residents unable to read standard print materials due to blindness, visual impairment, or physical or reading disability.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic