Checking In

Lawson McGhee Library

Checking In

The Knox County Public Library system is making plans for when — and how — to welcome patrons again.

by jesse fox mayshark • May 15, 2020


Knox county public libraries have been closed since March 20.

Even as retail outlets, restaurants and most government agencies ease back into business, one of the most popular government services in Knox County remains closed: the public library.

Planning for a future of distancing, plexiglass and quarantined returns.

The county’s system — the Lawson McGhee Library and East Tennessee History Center downtown and 17 branch locations — closed its doors to patrons on March 20. On May 8, County Mayor Glenn Jacobs furloughed 169 of its employees, the largest chunk of the 376 total county workers who have been placed on unemployment for eight weeks.

One of the 25 library employees still on the payroll is Communications Director Mary Pom Claiborne, who said Thursday that Library Director Myretta Black is consulting with the county Health Department about when and how to safely reopen. No date has been set.

“We’re doing everything in terms of safety that other places are doing, with the plexiglass shields at each of the stations,” Claiborne said. 

When books and other materials are returned, she said, they will be quarantined for a few days to kill off viruses that may be on the surfaces. Public computer stations in the libraries, which see heavy use, will be spaced out and subjected to thorough cleanings.

Claiborne said library programs and events like regular children’s story hours will take longer to come back, and the library is looking at alternative ways to offer some of those services remotely. Shared toys and stuffed animals in children’s play areas will be removed completely.

“The opportunity that I see personally is that we have been so busy promoting programs that this gives us a chance to back up and really look at the way we promote our services better,” Claiborne said.

That includes existing online services like the library’s OverDrive system, which offers e-books and audiobooks for download. Since the pandemic started, the library has added 993 new OverDrive users, and checkouts of materials through the system are up by about 28,000. 

It also includes the still-active “Ask a Librarian” service, which connects with a reference librarian through phone, email, text or chat. Knox County residents who did not already have a library card before the buildings closed can sign up for a digital card online, which will allow full access to the above services as well free streaming of movies and TV shows through the Kanopy platform.

“We instituted that right away,” Claiborne said of the digital card option. In less than a month, it generated more than 1,000 new sign-ups.

The library has also added temporary online access to the genealogical website — which you usually have to go to the History Center to use — and the language learning site Rosetta Stone.

Ramiro Salazar, director of the Public Library Association under the American Library Association, said the precautions Knox County is considering are similar to those under discussion at libraries across the country. Overall, he said, libraries are taking a cautious approach.

“Generally speaking, librarians and library professionals tend to be pretty deliberate in our efforts,” said Salazar, who in his day job is director of the library system in San Antonio, Texas. “We believe in a lot of planning.”

He said most libraries he’s heard from are considering a phased approach, starting with curbside pickup of materials and then progressing to slowly allowing patrons back in the buildings with safety guidelines in place: face masks, abundant hand sanitizer, rigorous cleaning protocols.

“My concern as a library director is that some decisions are being made by local governments or even state governments pressuring local governments to reopen businesses and get back to normal,” Salazar said. “But things are not normal.”

In Knox County, decisions about reopening will be guided by advice from the Health Department, said Mike Donila, communications director for County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. He said they won’t be driven by the furloughs — workers could be called back if the county decides it’s time.

It’s separate from the furloughs,” Donila said in an email. “The libraries were closed under the advice received from the Health Department. Additionally, the mayor has noted that it’s possible that employees could return from the furloughs before the eight-week timeframe.”

Of other major library systems around the state, Chattanooga and Nashville libraries remain closed. The Memphis Public Library began reopening its buildings on May 4, at 25 percent of their usual capacity.

Memphis’ guidelines include masks and gloves for all staff and four days of quarantine for any returned materials. Claiborne said Knox County is considering a 48-hour quarantine period. Salazar said the consensus among health and library professionals is consolidating around a 72-hour quarantine period.

Even while libraries remain closed, Claiborne said planning is ongoing for a retooled summer reading program. With children out of school for two extra months, the annual effort to bolster reading during the break will be even more important.

Claiborne said she knows patrons are eager for the library to be accessible again. But she thinks they are also willing to wait until it’s deemed safe.

“Library people in particular are pretty understanding,” she said. “They know the facts of this pandemic. But it’s certainly missed, and that speaks well of the value the community holds the library in.”