Edmonton's public libraries reopen to book lovers following COVID-19 closure

Starting Tuesday, Edmontonians will be allowed to browse the shelves of the Edmonton Public Library's 21 branches for the first time since March, albeit with a few restrictions intended to reduce the risk of COVID-19. 

Pandemic measures mean patrons are urged to browse with their eyes, not their hands

Edmonton Public Libraries, including the Calder branch, opened to book lovers on Tuesday. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Edmonton's public libraries reopened Tuesday, almost five months after the pandemic forced the facilities to close and leave stacks of books gathering dust.

"We're so eager to welcome people back to our spaces and delighted to support them in any way we can," said Pilar Martinez, CEO of the Edmonton Public Library.

"It's really lovely and I think we're excited that we've been approaching this in a really gradual, conservative way to make sure we were prepared." 

Starting Tuesday, Edmontonians are allowed to browse the shelves of the Edmonton Public Library's 21 branches for the first time since March, albeit with a series of new restrictions intended to reduce the risk of COVID-19. 

Masks are mandatory and physical distancing is required. Capacity within individual branches will be limited and library users are encouraged to limit the length of their visit to ensure everyone has access.

Computer workstations will be available on a limited capacity and can be pre-booked to ensure physical distancing is maintained. In-person classes and workshops remain cancelled. 

Look, don't touch

Those who decide to browse the shelves are encouraged to look with their eyes, not their hands, as much as possible.

Even briefly turning the page on a certain title will mean the book will need to be temporarily taken out of rotation.

Users are asked to place books they've touched but don't want to reserve into designated bins so the items can be properly sanitized. Books should be returned through the library chutes, not the service counters. 

"I think people will notice a difference," Martinez said. "They will still be able to access services but one of the big things is that we are quarantining library materials for 72 hours to reduce the spread of the virus.

"We're asking customers to not handle items if they don't need to." 

Books and other materials that have been borrowed will be quarantined on their return.

People are also encouraged to sanitize their hands frequently and limit face-to-face contact with staff whenever possible. 

All 21 EPL branches have been closed since March 14 when COVID-19 health restrictions shut down businesses and services across the province. In the weeks that followed, as the city attempted to contend with the financial outfall of the pandemic, the library temporarily laid off 500 employees, about 75 per cent of its staff.

About 330 of the 500 laid off staff have now returned to work, Martinez said. As libraries continue to expand their services, the number of employees will eventually return to normal, she said.

'A silver lining' 

Public libraries were officially allowed to open in June when the province entered Stage 2 of its relaunch strategy. The Edmonton Public Library, however, did not reopen its facilities to the public right away but adopted a phased approach, starting with online orders and physically distanced pick-up services. 

"Customers have been exceptionally patient and super-supportive," Martinez said. 

"I think just the experience overall that we're living right now, people are being patient and accommodating and understanding that they need to do things differently." 

As the EPL turns the page on the pandemic, some positives have come from the temporary closure of their brick-and-mortar facilities, Martinez said. Its online presence has grown.

"There's been a silver lining in this crisis in terms of the uptake of some of our virtual classes and events," she said. 

"Some of the programs were more highly attended through the virtual [platform] so I think we'll take advantage of that and continue to have a hybrid model."