I miss libraries.
Not that they’ve gone anywhere.
But they haven’t been the same since the pandemic started.
Many of the Capital Region’s libraries have reopened, but they’re no longer places where you can browse or sit or read to your heart’s content. Visits are meant to be quick, no-nonsense affairs. Hanging out is discouraged, and masks are required.
Earlier this month, Schenectady County resumed in-person services at five of its eight library branches — a welcome development for those of us who believe libraries are invaluable and ought to be open to the public.
Of course, determining just how open libraries should be during a pandemic is no easy task, and the county’s decision to reopen smaller branches while leaving the Karen B. Johnson Central Library in downtown Schenectady closed has made some people unhappy.
Particularly displeased is the Friends of Schenectady County Public Library, the non-profit organization that supports the library system through volunteerism and fundraising.
The group has become increasingly vocal about their desire to see the county’s biggest library reopened, launching a petition and changing the cover image on its Facebook page to read “Open Central Library Now!”
It’s a more confrontational approach than one might expect of a group that calls itself the Friends, and it underlines the organization’s increasing frustration.
“[The Karen B. Johnson library] is the hub of Schenectady,” Charlene Roman, president of the Friends of the SCPL, told me. “It’s downtown. There are people who can’t necessarily get to the branches, or who live in places where the branches haven’t opened at all.”
I sympathize with the Friends, and I agree that Schenectady County should develop a more specific timeline for reopening its largest library. It’s simply not a good look to have such an important educational and cultural resource remain closed when restaurants, bars and Rivers Casino & Resort are all open for business.
But I also understand why the county has taken such a cautious approach to reopening its most popular library.
And while resuming in-person services ought to be the goal, it makes sense to wait until after Election Day.
The facility is an early voting site, and early voting, which starts on Oct. 24, has been a popular option in other states, drawing unprecedented numbers of people. At this point, it makes sense to wait until things are calmer to take up the matter of reopening the downtown library again.
Erin Roberts, a spokesperson for Schenectady County, told me that the Karen B. Johnson library is also being used by the District Attorney’s Office to convene grand juries. Those grand juries have met in the McChesney Room, a meeting space that’s separate from the main library, but at times the main library has been used to “space out witnesses,” she said.
Under the county’s COVID-19 response plan, the library is also a staging area for distributing a vaccine, if and when a vaccine becomes available, and is being used to store supplies such as masks and refrigerators.
A reopening plan approved by the library Board of Trustees in June would have reopened the Karen B. Johnson library before the branches, during step three of the library’s phased reopening process.
The Friends of SCPL were happy with that plan.
Then a revised blueprint, approved on Sept. 24, shelved reopening Karen B. Johnson during step three. Instead, it called for reopening the five branches on Oct. 5, with no date given for when the downtown facility might reopen.
“As the pandemic went on, we wanted to make sure people were complying with the rules [at the smaller branches] and work out the kinks before reopening the central library,” Roberts said, noting that Karen B. Johnson is “our most popular branch.”
That popularity explains the push to open Karen B. Johnson, but also why the county is treading carefully.
One big concern is the potential for an increase in COVID cases as the weather gets colder and people move indoors — something that’s already occurring in a number of New York communities, including Albany County.
Thus far, there’s been a steady flow of visitors to the library branches that have reopened, Roberts said, and “patrons have been incredibly grateful to be back in the library and most have been very respectful of the COVID-19 protocols. We’ve only had a few instances where patrons were asked to wait due to capacity issues, but it was only for about five minutes.”
The Karen B. Johnson Library isn’t completely closed off to the public — it offers curbside pickup Monday through Saturday.
The branches that have reopened — Bornt and Mont Pleasant in Schenectady, Niskayuna, Rotterdam and Glenville – require temperature checks at the front door and sign-in before entry, limit computer use to 30 minutes, forbid lingering and loitering and no longer have toys or games for visitors to play with.
In other words, these aren’t the libraries we know and love.
COVID-19 has changed them, at least temporarily.
While disappointing, I suspect most patrons will understand.
“We know our community loves our library system,” Roberts said. “We understand that. I can’t wait to get back to using the central branch. There’s so much there.”
There is indeed.
It’s why the county needs to prioritize opening the Karen B. Johnson library, and allow people to visit this all-important institution once again.