Nfld. & Labrador

Bookworms anxious to browse, as some N.L. libraries plan September reopenings

While details such as dates and locations are still to be determined, many literary lovers will soon be able to go inside some N.L. libraries for the first time since March.

Some branches to open to patrons on Sept. 8

Some libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador will reopen to in-person services on Sept. 8, although the exact branches have not yet been determined. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

Starting in September, some libraries in Newfoundland and Labrador will reopen their doors to let patrons browse books inside their buildings for the first time in months.

The library system has tentatively earmarked the day after Labour Day, Sept. 8, for some branches to open to limited in-person services. It's the first time book lovers will be able to go inside since the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a shutdown in March. 

That can't come too soon for bookworm Doreen Burton of Port aux Basques.

"I miss it a lot," said Burton. "I'm like a kid in a candy store. I'll go into the library and my eyes just light up."

While the lion's share of libraries in the province have been offering curbside pickup for books since late June, Burton has been out of luck: an issue developed with her local library's floors during the closure, and the library is waiting on engineering expertise to determine a fix.

That's left the library in limbo and unable to offer even modified services to its local readers like Burton. 

"I know it's only a library, and there's other things that's on our minds, school and visitations and all that stuff within our bubble, but the library is essential as well. And there's a lot of people in Port aux Basques who would love to have that library open up," she said.

Meanwhile, the manager of the St. John's public libraries said staff are working to "open as many as we can" across the province.

"Our goal, obviously, is to have our patrons able to come in and access our resources and our facilities, so we'll be working to make that possible wherever we can," Susan Prior told CBC Radio's On The Go.

The number of people allowed inside a branch will be limited, and the number will differ depending on the size of the building. (Stephanie Tobin/CBC)

PPE problems

Despite the province's low case load — which as of Thursday stands at two active cases, both in eastern Newfoundland — its libraries have remained closed beyond curbside pickup and digital services.

In recent weeks, libraries across Canada began reopening. New Brunswick began reopening its branches on June 1, Halifax's public library system reopened on July 7, with others in Nova Scotia following suit, while P.E.I. libraries reopened on July 20.

Burton said that as she saw society unfurl from isolation, libraries in N.L. would follow suit.

"I just assumed — I said, well, that's great. You have the gym open, the swimming pool open, other activities are open. Well I just assumed the library, and I was shocked that it wasn't," she said.

"We're very anxious to get that open."

Delays in obtaining the necessary PPE for the branches, such as acrylic shields for circulations desks, has been one of the biggest snags to reopening buildings, according to the library board.

Circulation down, digital reading up

In the meantime, e-services have been on fire, with digital downloads and other services up 65 per cent from April to June 2020, compared to the same time last year.

Children's books have been the biggest digital draw.

Physical circulation, though, has been hit hard: no books moved anywhere until curbside pickup began. According to the library board, about 143,000 books circulated through the system for July 2019. Circulation for July 2020 was about 63,000, entirely though curbside pickup, a 56 per cent drop overall.

Despite the drop, which was expected, the library considers curbside pickup a success.

"I can speak for St. John's — it's been a steady flow of people coming by to pick up their books," said Prior.

Curbside pickup will continue even as branches reopen.

"Patrons have really been enjoying the service, and ideally we may continue this in some of our locations, indefinitely," said Prior.

Fines have been waived throughout the pandemic, and total about $20,000 in lost revenue, cash that funnels back into building operating bills like janitorial and maintenance services.

"Any loss of money for us is a concern," said Andrew Hunt, the executive director of the provincial library board. 

E-services like digital downloads have exploded in the province's library system since the pandemic, with their use up 65 per cent from April to June compared to the same time frame in 2019. (The Associated Press)

A different browsing experience

The return to in-person services brings with it myriad public health regulations and safety restrictions.

Patrons will be limited by number and will be required to wear masks. Each person must use hand sanitizer upon entry. 

As well, access to computers will be limited, and children's storytime areas will remain closed, as will meeting and boardroom spaces.

Given that the 96 public library branches vary in size and scope from tiny Cow Head to the A.C. Hunter Library in St. John's, Prior said the experience will be different depending on where you go, if you can go at all.

"I expect that not every location will open," said Prior.

"We are a very diverse system, with libraries of different sizes across the province, and that will determine what we can do at each location."

Prior said some locations may roll out a soft opening before Sept. 8. As it stands, though, it is too early to say which branches will be the first to welcome back patrons.

She said people should keep an eye on their own branch's social media channels as well as the public library's website for those updates.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from On The Go

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