In early October, a ray of hope arrived for those eagerly awaiting the reopening of Seattle-area public libraries: Gov. Jay Inslee announced new pandemic guidelines for libraries in Phase 2 counties (which includes King County), which would allow reopening to the public. The rules are strict, with occupancy capped at 25%, but the guidelines seemed to bring hope that long-closed library doors might open again.

But it won’t be happening in the very immediate future, for either Seattle Public Library or King County Library System. While both systems have opened multiple branches for curbside service — i.e., place holds online, pick them up outside the library door — it’ll be a while before patrons can actually enter library buildings. Marcellus Turner, chief librarian of SPL, said that he hoped to get a few branches open for walk-ins “toward the end of the year”; Lisa Rosenblum, KCLS executive director, said she was looking at “after the new year.”  

With curbside service being the only current library reality for physical books and other nondigital materials (both library systems have offered extensive digital offerings throughout the pandemic), some SPL patrons are frustrated at what seems to be a slow pace of reopening: As of the first week of November, SPL has 11 of its 27 locations currently offering curbside checkout; 13 locations offer book return. In contrast, KCLS has 41 locations out of its 50 offering curbside service, and the system began offering such services in early July, a month earlier than SPL began.

Asked to explain the difference, Turner said it was a frequent question, and said one reason had to do with differences in the way the two library systems are structured and funded. SPL is a city department governed by an independent library board that sets library policy and oversees library finances; the majority of its funding comes from the city’s general fund, allocated through the regular city budget process directed by the mayor and Seattle City Council. KCLS, in contrast, is a “special purpose district” — an independent entity, not part of King County government; it is funded by property tax levies. This means the wheels turn more slowly at SPL, as there are more layers of government oversight involved; KCLS, in contrast, can be more nimble.

A significant factor in the Seattle libraries’ slower reopening, according to communications director Andra Addison, was SPL’s commitment to providing seven-days-a-week restroom access in five branches, beginning in April, as part of a citywide effort to support the hygiene needs of those without homes. “This was at a time when no one was opening restrooms to the public and the city was essentially shut down,” said Addison in an email. “We had to figure out how to talk with staff and the union about this, provide the proper PPE, staffing, establish and implement cleaning protocols, training and more. Other libraries such as KCLS were planning curbside service during that time.”

Turner also noted that SPL’s curbside reopening plans were twice interrupted when the staff had to “stop and reassess our budget, as the city had to address the budget challenges that were occurring.” As the city dealt with significant budget cuts for 2020 and 2021, library workers needed to assist with that planning — often, Turner said, the same workers who were leading the effort to figure out how to best deliver curbside service. “We were pulling them away from one track to work on another. It didn’t stop them totally, but those things did play into it,” he said. (SPL’s rate of reopening is not unique; the San Francisco Public Library system, for example, currently has nine of its 28 branches open for curbside service.)

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Focusing on curbside service, for both library systems, has meant learning a new way of working — one that is, in many ways, more complicated than the old. “It takes more staff to do curbside,” said Rosenblum. “I call it concierge librarianship. We’re pulling the books, bringing them out, checking them out for you.” Branches have had to be rearranged to accommodate patron lines safely outdoors, increase storage areas indoors (returned materials have to be quarantined for three days, which requires a lot of dedicated space), and keep staff safely distanced.

Just over one-third of SPL branches are currently open for curbside; Addison cited the size of the buildings (smaller than many KCLS branches) as a factor, and said that after adding the Southwest and Beacon Hill branches early this month, the library’s focus will shift to making plans for reopening. But Turner noted that virtually all of the branches have staffers inside the buildings, to retrieve holds and coordinate delivery. “We have staff working in cohorts to do that work,” he said. “And we have those working from home, developing programs and virtual services that we have to offer. No one is furloughed; there’s work for everyone.” Though many patrons saw delays in getting their holds initially, Addison said that as of Nov. 2, three open-for-curbside branches that had been struggling to deal with a vast backlog of hold requests (Lake City, Ballard and High Point) are now fully caught up.

Meanwhile, KCLS has recently announced an enhancement to its curbside service: lockers, in which library patrons can pick up reserved books, DVDs or other materials. Rosenblum said it was her idea, inspired by Amazon’s ubiquitous lockers. Available at the Bothell and Covington locations, the electronic lockers make contactless pickup easy — and available 24/7, which is useful both now and post-COVID. “They’re beautiful, and they’re user-friendly,” said Rosenblum, who said she hopes to expand the program (paid for by the library’s foundation) to additional locations.

As the library heads look to partially reopening to patrons in coming months, they have similar concerns: adequate supplies, masks and hand sanitizer for both staff and the public; installation of plexiglass in areas where staffers provide direct public service; removal and rearrangement of furniture and computers to accommodate 25% capacity; new protocols for cleaning and staffing; studying issues of airflow in the various buildings. All of this takes time, and won’t be rushed.

“We’re being very careful to make sure everyone stays safe,” said Rosenblum, who noted that even the vague reopening target of early 2021 might be reexamined if coronavirus cases continue to rise. “It’s not that I don’t want to open. I have to follow the mandated [state] protocols and capacity. We’re happy to do that because it’s kept our staff safe.”

Turner cautioned that when library branches do reopen, it may not feel quite the same as before. “We’ve been saying, we’re going to try to make it as familiar to you as we can, but do not expect normal.”