Local libraries set phased plans to safely reconnect patrons with materials, services

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — For more than two months, libraries across southwest Michigan have been even quieter than usual, lights turned low and doors locked tight as literary lovers have awaited re-entry.

When coronavirus first began to plague Michigan residents in early March, library directors in Cass County and southeast Berrien County agreed the libraries would stay open as long as they could legally do so. Not long after, executive order 2020-69 closed “places of public accommodation,” including libraries. When executive 2020-96 mandated that non-essential employees “Stay Home, Stay Safe,” all library personnel who were not maintenance or administrative employees were forced to work from home.

The Stay Home, Stay Safe order is projected to be lifted Friday, June 12, at which point Michigan will continue to reopen the state in phases.

Libraries across southwest Michigan are preparing to following suit.

“Our plan has four phases,” said Barbara Gordon, director of the Cass District Library, which has branches in Cassopolis, Edwardsburg and Niles. “It’s a phased reopening plan, which is really similar to how the state itself is being reopened.”

Niles, Buchanan and Dowagiac district libraries are also taking phased approaches to reopening, though each library’s plan looks slightly different.

Buchanan District Library Director Meg Paulette said library directors across the state have been working together, with the help of legal counsel, to determine steps necessary to safely reopen.

“I decided to go with one that didn’t have a lot of set dates or time constraints on it, just because of the way everything is changing all the time,” Paulette said.

Other local libraries followed suit, announcing the phases, but only listing the date for phase one. Though each library’s plan varies, the gist of each is the same.

Beginning June 15, patrons may drop off rented materials in drop boxes outside the library buildings. The materials will be sanitized and quarantined for 72 hours, the amount of time experts say it takes for germs to die off.

Sneeze guards will be installed at each library, staff will wear masks and employees will be trained how to adequately clean all surfaces.

At most libraries, employees will return to work immediately, though patrons will not be permitted inside the buildings. Though library staff had to work from home during the stay-at-home order, all employees remained employed, with no lay-offs or furloughs taking place at any southwest Michigan library.

“The majority of our revenue comes from property taxes,” said Dowagiac District Library Director Matt Weston. “The kind of money that we get from the state of Michigan, penal fines, these kinds of things are a smaller portion. Those are expected to go down this summer, but nobody was laid off as a result.”

Though in-person programming was suspended, employees at each branch have been able to continue programming to a degree, offering virtual programs and online materials like e-books.

“Our staff members have really stepped up and have been posting Facebook and YouTube videos of story time, science projects, cooking, gardening and craft videos,” said Stevyn Compoe, Niles District Library director. “You can find all these videos online on our Facebook page as well as our YouTube channel.”

Though virtual programming has allowed libraries to remain connected with patrons and some online programming may continue even when the libraries may safely open, Gordon and Paulette said virtual programming can never fully accomplish the libraries’ missions.

“It’s been tough,” Gordon said. “We’re trying to look at virtual programing as an opportunity rather than a replacement for our other programming.”

Gordon said connecting with patrons virtually is a challenge in rural Cass County, where many patrons do not have access to quality internet.

“Only people who have access to that kind of technology and internet are the ones that can participate,” Paulette said, pointing out that many patrons who regularly take advantage of library programs lack access to computers and internet unless they are physically inside the library.

Though dates have not been specified for future phases, next steps include curbside pickup for materials — including books, movies, craft kits, summer reading program packets and more.

When libraries eventually reopen to the public, social distancing measures will be in place.

Library directors across southwest Michigan agreed that they are eager to reconnect with patrons and reopen to the community as soon as safely possible.

“It has been sad as a director, sitting in a vast empty facility that is usually bustling with activity,” Compoe said. “We are a hub of the community, a place where people gather to seek information and learn new skills, and while we still have an online presence, the silence in the building is heartbreaking.”

Paulette agreed.

“I’m looking forward to seeing our patrons — people who are there on a daily basis [pre-pandemic],” Paulette said. “I’ve been worried about them and hope everyone is OK. It’ll be nice to see them and get back to actually serving people.”