Montgomery County’s public library system is preparing to slowly reopen its buildings for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started more than a year ago.
The county hasn’t announced a date yet for when the buildings will reopen. Anita Vassallo, the director of the library system, told Bethesda Beat that the plan is to reopen select branches for browsing, computer use and copying, printing and scanning services.
“It will be appointment-based, to begin with. Then the plan for us, after we see how this works out, is to continue opening buildings throughout the course of the summer,” she said.
Since last year, 20 of the county’s 21 libraries have offered a “holds-to-go” pickup service, in which customers schedule appointments online or by phone to pick up their holds . To date, more than 300,000 appointments have been made for this service, Vassallo said.
Additionally, she said the county has conducted about 200 virtual library programs per month.
“There has been an awful lot going on during the past year,” she said. “But I know that people are really interested in getting on back into the buildings, and that’s very important to us also.”
Vassallo said the libraries are implementing a number of safety features, including:
- Putting in plexiglass dividers
- Installing more self-checkout stations to limit person-to-person interaction
- Spreading computers apart to ensure social distancing
- Putting hand sanitizer stations in buildings
“We have been working toward reopening ever since we closed,” Vassallo said. “We put a reopening work group of staff together to kind of evaluate all of our different facilities to see how we could best offer our interior services with a focus on health and safety for our customers, and for staff.”
County Council Member Will Jawando, the lead for libraries on the council, said he’s been in touch with Vassallo and her staff about the reopening plan. He said it’s important to make sure everyone in the county feels safe, particularly older residents, before indoor congregating starts again.
“The goal will be [to have] the numbers headed in the right direction, and we’ll start as phased-in approach,” he said.
Vassallo said there has been a lot of interest in when the libraries will reopen, particularly from residents who rely on the libraries for free computer usage.
“The digital divide is real, and…we are actively engaged with the Department of Technology Services in installing enhanced wireless available outside our buildings, available at quite a distance,” she said.
Additionally, Vassallo said being in the library affords a unique pleasure that can’t be duplicated by a contactless pickup service.
“People want to just be able to come in and spend some time looking at what’s on the shelf,” she said. “If you’re a library user, you know that serendipity is half of coming to the library. You see something that catches your eye and you want to check that out,” she said.
Dan Schere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org