Bridgeville library drop box

Brad Hundt/Observer-Reporter

A drop box outside the library in Bridgeville

Since mid-March, libraries across Pennsylvania that are normally hubs of learning, exploration and community engagement have been sitting empty.

The books that line shelves have been untouched. The same with toys and games that are much-handled fixtures of any library’s children’s section. Computers have been switched off, and meeting rooms that would be hosting chess matches, art exhibits, hobbyists, or any of a number of other activities have been silent.

There hasn’t been a time in living memory where libraries have been shuttered for so long. The doors were open through the worst days of the Great Depression, World War II and in the aftermath of 9/11. For almost two months, though, libraries have been closed “until further notice” to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. And though there’s no indication yet when libraries in Washington County and surrounding areas will reopen, it’s likely that once they do, only bare-bones services will be available at first.

This will mean picking up or dropping off materials at curbside, library personnel decked in personal protective gear, and books and other items placed in quarantine after they are returned so any trace of the virus that might be on them will dissipate.

“This is nothing that has happened to libraries or anyone else,” said Diane Ambrose, the executive director of Washington’s Citizens Library. “It’s really a scary time, especially when we want our patrons to be safe.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Education is due to release guidelines perhaps as soon as today on how libraries should handle reopening. In the meantime, the State Library of Pennsylvania has put forward guidance on what libraries should be doing beforehand. Their suggestions include ordering masks, tissues, gloves, thermometers, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies.

Under the three-tier system for reopening the state established by Gov. Tom Wolf last month, library officials should view a community’s movement into the “yellow phase,” where some limited activities are allowed, as “a signal that library staff may re-enter the building to begin preparing staff, collection and the facility for a return to service,” according to the State Library guidance.

There’s “a lot of work to do” at Frank Sarris Public Library in Canonsburg before the public will be allowed back in, according to Peggy Tseng, the library’s director. Patrons might be allowed back in the building after a few weeks of curbside service, with a maximum of 25 allowed in at any time. Seating areas will be closed off, only a few computers will be available for quick use and plexiglass shields will be installed at the circulation desk.

“If wearing a mask is required to go to grocery store, then patrons are required to wear a mask to enter the library,” Tseng said. “We might even operate on reduced hours for a period of time, but that decision has not been made.”

And once libraries do start to reopen, the speed at which material circulates will almost certainly slow. The Association for Library Collection and Technical Services recommends quarantining paper material for one to five days after it is received, and quarantining items like DVDs and compact discs for three to nine days.

Limited curbside service will most likely be on the menu when Peters Township Public Library reopens, according to Myra Olenik, the library’s director. Over the last two months, Peters and other libraries have been offering robust online programs even as physical structures remain closed. Peters has had a spring poetry salon and online genealogy course, among other things, while Washington has adult book clubs and storytime sessions online.

Because it’s still unresolved about when libraries will be back to business as usual, “the plan is to continue and develop these virtual programs in the coming weeks,” said Carrie Weaver, the public relations coordinator for Peters Township Public Library.

Staff Writer

Brad Hundt came to the Observer-Reporter in 1998 after stints at newspapers in Georgia and Michigan. He serves as editorial page editor, and has covered the arts and entertainment and worked as a municipal beat reporter.

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