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New York City libraries announce an opening date

From grab and go book lending to librarians behind Plexiglass, it'll be a very different landscape.

Shaye Weaver
Written by
Shaye Weaver

More than 50,000 people have signed up for a New York Public Library card since it closed its 92 branches and research centers in mid-March.

That's an 864% increase in digital library card sign-ups, and about a 200% boost in new users across all of its e-reading platforms, the NYPL says. The numbers speak for themselves—New Yorkers rely on their local libraries, especially now, when we're stuck at home. 

But when will we be able to walk into those doors again and pick out a new book, ask our favorite librarian for help or attend a storytime or educational gathering? 

Officially, the  NYPL, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Queens Public Library will open Monday, July 13 with grab-and-go services at 22 branches.

The three systems have been working together to come up with a consistent plan so that when New Yorkers do walk through their doors again, they'll know what to expect.

They'll start limited service very soon

A full reopening will be largely contingent on health and safety recommendations, according to library officials. Library officials selected specific branches to reopen in July based on proximity to public transportation, size, building condition, and location, with the goal of covering as much of the city as possible.

The NYPL will start with opening eight branches across Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island for book lending (which will be announced at a later date) with 22 closed-to-the-public fulfillment sites to aid in getting books to the open branches, according to Bannon.

Branches you can visit will be: Manhattan’s George Bruce, Epiphany, and Stavros Niarchos Foundation libraries; Bronx’s Belmont, Francis Martin, and Parkchester libraries; and Staten Island’s Richmondtown and Todt Hill-Westerleigh libraries. Hours for most branches will be 11am to 6pm on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday; noon to 7pm on Wednesday; and 11am to 5pm on Friday and Saturday. The only exception is the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, which will be open 10am to 6pm Monday to Friday, and 11am to 5pm on Saturday.  

"When we begin the process, we'll be phasing services in—it's not just turning on the lights and opening the doors—it will not be business as usual like where we were in early March," said Brian Bannon, the NYPL's Merryl and James Tisch Director.

"We fully intend to return to some sense of what the library used to be with story hours, book clubs, author events, but like movie theaters, gyms and other public spaces in the initial phases, there will be a greater emphasis on limiting capacity for activities," Bannon said. "It will be a little bit slower and may take a little bit longer to get access."

The Brooklyn Public Library will bring in library staff to just seven branches to start with to do some inventory work, continue their virtual programming and get used to coming back into work, said Nick Higgins, the chief library at Brooklyn Public Library.

"It'll be a multi-step process done slowly and deliberately," Higgins said. "There is going to be a lot of prep time at our facilities for our custodial staff and our IT teams to go out to each of our 60 libraries to see how we can reconfigure workspaces and place floor decals and safety signage before we even start bringing the public and service staff in. Once we figure that out and the commutes are nailed down and we have enough staff, we will slowly open the doors for a limited amount of service to the public."

BPL will open the following branches: Bay Ridge, Bushwick, Kings Highway, Central, New Lots, Flatbush and Red Hook. Hours will be 10am to 4pm on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, and 1pm to 7pm on Tuesday and Thursday.

Of Queens Public Library's 66 locations, seven of them will open for limited service at first, according to Nick Buron, the chief librarian at QPL: Bayside, Bellerose, East Elmhurst, Kew Gardens Hills, Laurelton, Long Island City and Peninsula libraries. Hours will be 10am to 5pm, Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday (with a one-hour closure from 1 to 2pm for cleaning); 1 to 5pm on Tuesday; and noon to 7pm on Thursday (with a one-hour closure from 3 to 4pm for cleaning).

"By starting slow, we're going to be able to get it right and will learn things about how to open up even more," Buron said. "We all acknowledge the smartest way to start our services is to keep everyone safe. 

No browsing, just grab and go

Some libraries across the country have been offering curbside service, but what works in one place does not work in another, Buron said. Most QPL locations are set on major thoroughfares and it would be a "major disservice" to the public if they have to double and triple park to pick up their books, plus, most customers don't come by car since 99 percent of the Queens population lives within 1 mile of their nearest library, Buron added.

"Handing them something would be the opposite of contactless service," he said.

Instead of that, all three library systems will be offering grab and go services inside their lobbies. Instead of browsing for your books, you'll be able to reserve them online or call your closest open branch ahead of time and go pick it up yourself. Library staff will have the books set out on a shelf, ready to go with your name on them so all you'll have to do when you arrive is pick them up.

At QPL branches, you will use self-check-out machines to scan your library card and reserved books — all you'll need to do is key in your pin number. QPL's 24/7 automatic book return kiosks will be back on at these branches as well, so you can return that long-held library book (don't worry, none of the library systems are charging fees for late books). If you need help, a masked librarian behind plexiglass can help you, Buron said.

Don't expect tables or chairs to read in or programming going on during this first phase.

"We'll start with our core ability to put books into people's hands," Buron added. "As society overcomes this more, then we will expand the offerings. When it’s the right time we’ll offer more services at more locations."

That's the plan at the other systems' branches, too.

"After we figure out how to go to the next step, we'll slowly open doors a little bit more ... with a limited number of books on library shelves and adding job search and reference help ... as a designated census form terminal at each of those sites," Brooklyn's Higgins said.

In this first phase of reopening, New Yorkers will:

  • Can access a small area of the open branches to pick up and return checkouts placed online or on the phone (the process will be contactless)
  •  Must wear masks (this is mandatory, as per State guidelines)
  • Must physically distance from staff and other patrons
  • Must respect capacity limits inside the open locations
  • Must leave the libraries as soon as their pickups or returns are complete; at this stage, there will be no browsing, in-person reference, or computer use.
  •  Can continue to access programming, e-books, research databases, classes and more virtually, via enhanced digital offerings that will remain in place; for the time being, in-person programs and classes will not be held in branches
  •  Can check out materials without accruing fines for the time being (fines will not accrue on items checked out before temporary closure or during this first phase of reopening)

It won't be the same — it'll be better

"We've crossed the Rubicon and we're never going back," Higgins said.

The days of cramming 50 kids into a conference room for a program is likely a thing of the past as the city's libraries will be cleaning more often, reorganizing their floors to provide more space between visitors and limiting occupancy for the foreseeable future.

But library officials agree that when their branches are all fully open again, they'll be able to serve the public in a new way. 

“We know that our communities need us more than ever as they cope with multiple crises impacting public health, the economy, and social justice,” Anthony W. Marx, president of The New York Public Library, said. “People are hurting. People need help. People need us. We have a plan to reopen thoughtfully and carefully, with the safety of our staff and patrons as our first priority. This first group of branches is only the first step in that plan, but an important one. We hope to safely open more locations soon.”

Buron from QPL said libraries will have more of an opportunity to touch previously unreached residents and bring people together. By quickly pivoting their services and programs online in March, he and his librarians have learned that it's possible to provide additional resources and programming online — more than they had been before all of this happened. 

QPL saw its ebook checkouts double during the shutdown with thousands of new users. Between March 16 and May 31, QPL's circulation hit about 450,000 digital checkouts.

"Our motto is 'The library is for everyone. Everyone is welcome,'" he said. "We had about 1.5 million people attend our programs last year — but we know there are people who can’t make them. The virtual environment we've been able to build up is not something we want to lose because so many more people can take advantage of our offerings."

BPL is also seeing record checkouts and online participation, showing that Brooklyn residents have adapted.

"I anticipate they’ll be sticking around for a lot longer," Chief Librarian Higgins said.

His library staff has also been personally reaching out to seniors and other community members to make sure they're safe and have what they need.

"Frankly, I think people want that and will get used to it and want to connect with libraries in those ways," he said, adding that he's hopeful that the library will become even more of a community space than ever before.

"On the other side of this, I hope we come back to a different institution—a better institution, a better compassionate and thoughtful institution," he said. "We miss Brooklyn so much. We can’t wait to get back together."

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