KPL prepares to come back from COVID-19 shutdown. Reopening will be in four phases.

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

A partial reopening of the Kalamazoo Public Library is not possible until at least sometime in June – depending on orders from the governor – but the staff is drafting plans for that event as the community tries to recover from the coronavirus shutdown.

“We are talking with everybody and trying to make sure we’re addressing every possible thing we can think of – in terms of what patrons will need and in terms of what staff needs because we know that our patrons are very eager to come back and we wanted to get information out about that as soon as we could,” says Farrell Howe, marketing that communications manager for the library.

The library recently issued a four-part phase-in plan for its reopening, whenever that may be.

Reacting to stay-at-home orders from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the downtown location of the library and its four satellite branches closed on March 15 after a last-minute social-media warning about the closure to patrons. That resulted in a last-minute rush by lots of library users, Howe says.

Farrell Howe working from her home computers.
In an attempt to give the public enough information so people don’t have to rush when the library reopens (which cannot happen until after the governor’s current order expires on May 28, if then), Howe said the library is looking at a four-step reopening process. It includes:

• Curbside drop-off — Collecting and quarantining approximately 40,000 books and other library materials that were in general circulation when the library closed on March 15. Drop-offs have not been allowed during the shut-down because library staff members have not been at the branches to handle book returns. Drop-slots would have been jammed and useless if they had remained open with no processing, Howe says.

She says plans now call for the loaned materials to be collected in pods that will be placed at announced times in the parking lots of the various branch locations. Staff members in personal protective equipment will help. The materials are to be quarantined for 72 hours and then cleaned, in keeping with recommendations for decontamination the library has received.

“We will be requesting that people park and walk the materials over (to the pods),” Howe says. “We are trying to limit contact between patrons and staff as much as possible.”

Returned items will be placed on carts or in tubs and stored in the pods, which are 8’ wide, by 8’ tall and 16’ deep enclosed storage containers on wheels. The materials, which are among more than 1.18 million movies, music discs, recordings, magazines, and printed materials available for loan from the library system, will be checked back in. Because it is a rather old-school process, Howe says, “It’s going to take some time for patrons to see that their materials have been returned.”
Lisa Godfrey, president of the Kalamazoo Public Library Board of Directors, center, cuts a ribbon declaring the library a fines free library on January 2, 2020, flanked to left by library director Ryan Wieber and Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson, right

Curbside pickup of materials – Staff members will process patron orders for materials and provide a safe way for them to pick up their selections via their car or walk-up. Times and dates will be set and announced later.
Limited Access – Open days, hours, and library services will be modified to provide a safe environment for all. But the library’s leadership team is still deciding what that will mean and how facilities will be reopened for public access. Howe says it will likely mean reduced open hours, no in-house programming, no gathering of groups, and social distancing will be enforced. But details are still being determined.

Providing access means library locations will be thoroughly cleaned.

“So far our facilities department has already cleaned all high-touch surfaces,” Howe says. That includes bathrooms, tables, computers, and anything that would be touched a lot, such as desks and arms of chairs.

“The books, themselves, on the shelves,” Howe says, “it’s been closed for so long, it’s probably not necessary to pull each of them off the shelves and clean them.”

While authorities have said the coronavirus remains active on some surfaces for days, Howe says the library has been closed for weeks, which would render the virus inactive.

Full Access – Locations will return to providing full access to services and programming while maintaining established procedures to ensure a clean, safe experience.

Howe says, “We also don’t expect all patrons will feel safe coming back right away. Curbside pickup may be what our patrons are comfortable with for a while. Our service model will have to adjust as our patrons’ behavior dictates the best course of action to provide the service they want and need.”

The library, which is led by Director Ryan Wieber, has been able to maintain its staff during the shutdown, without any layoffs or furloughs. The Kalamazoo Public Library employs about 170 people. Eighty-one of those are full-time workers (including 23 librarians). The rest are hourly staff members. The library receives 94 percent of its funding from property tax millages.

“We are very, very fortunate that we have been able to maintain our staff,” Howe says.

She says the staff is very tech savvy and its information technology team has been able to keep everyone working remotely from their homes. The staff, in turn, has been able to continue doing online programming, including online chat services to answer patrons’ questions and to craft a system that allows people to sign up for library cards online. Howe says more than 400 people signed up for a card just after the system was launched.

Asked about the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) shutdown, Howe said, “The hardest part for our staff is not being able to serve the people that need us the most. That has been universally crushing to our staff.”

Library facilities are safe havens for families with children, teens, and the homeless. And they provide services that are not readily available to many. The access the library provides to computers and the Internet allows children to do school work and adults to hunt for jobs and find needed social services.

During the shutdown, the library also has been working with Kalamazoo Loaves & Fishes to channel new books to youngsters. About 300 books were to be given to families as they visit the Loaves & Fishes food pantry. Some books were from past Summer Reading Challenge events and others were to be given away during the library’s Party in the Park on May 27. That event, intended to promote early childhood literacy, was canceled because of the COVID-19 shut-down.

Asked about the impact the virus may have on the ongoing use and feel of the library, Howe says,  “We do feel that a lot will change in the future and that library service as we knew it will likely never be the same. We believe our online services and programming will continue to grow and that people’s behaviors toward gathering in large groups in the future may change and we will have to adapt as a result.”

But she also says, “I know Kalamazoo Public Library is up to the challenge.”

The steps to the phased reopening of Kalamazoo Public Library
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Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.