Podcast Episode: Libraries in the Age of Social Distancing

The following is an informal transcription of this episode of the Advancing America's Libraries Podcast.

There's really going to be a hard question that needs to be asked about the amount of space reserved for collections and whether there is some deaccession that needs to happen to allow the collection to get weeded to make more space for patrons. We're going to continue to see these shifts in the balance of space within libraries.

Jim Kovach

Pam: Architect Jim Kovach (@JCK237) is a Senior Associate at VMDO, an architectural firm located here in Charlottesville, VA. His work has included significant campus and library master planning projects. Jim is particularly focused on making functional spaces beautiful and beautiful spaces functional. He has presented at ALA conferences and Library Journal has featured his work. He has served as an Adjunct Professor of Architecture at the University of Virginia, his alma mater. He is currently engaged by the New City Library in Rockland County, New York on a comprehensive library master planning project.

Welcome, Jim!

Jim: So happy to be here with you, Pam. I've really been looking forward to this conversation.

How are libraries faring during the pandemic?

Pam: As have we! Jim, I'm going to start with talking about libraries in general. You know as well as I do that these are the best of times and the worst of times not just for libraries but for all of us. We've all had to make significant adjustments to our routines and working arrangements. From your perspective, how are your library clients faring during the pandemic?

Jim: I think it's safe to say, Pam, that they are doing their best to stay busy. Many of them, like you and I, have been continuing to work from home, but I think like all of us some are adjusting well to digital life and others are struggling a little bit more.

I've found in the conversations I've had with a number of them that many miss the personal touch that comes with face-to-face interaction with patrons. I've had some fun conversations about what they're doing to reinforce the need for public and personal connection and have a couple of examples I'd love to share.

One librarian I've been speaking with who is not crazy about this growing digital divide has been sharing videos of her home garden and offering gardening advice through the library website. This is fantastic!

Another similarly is doing nature walks through her neighborhood that focus on bird watching. She identifies birds and posts short clips on the library website. Another great example of what librarians are doing these days: a librarian at a library we've worked with has taken the 3-D printer home with him and is producing parts for face shields for front line workers. I think that is such a wonderful way to use that asset in a productive way.

How are librarians preparing to allow people back in libraries?

Pam: Well, librarians are "people" people. Libraries are all about people, so this distant connection is probably not natural to them. But as we open, people will be coming back into their libraries even though there will be a lot of wariness of internal spaces, close contact, etc. How are libraries preparing for that?

Jim: To your point, Pam, I could not agree more that librarians are "people" people as you say. I want to be very clear that everyone to a person with whom I've spoken has been very insistent that they desperately want to get back into the library. They really want to do it in the safest way they can—they want to keep the staff safe, and they want to keep the patrons safe.

That said, they are really developing some interesting ways to provide services in the near term. I think we are currently thinking about the coronavirus in stages so that there is a 1-3-month plan, then a plan to address issues further out.

Curbside pickup of reserved materials seems to be a popular way right now to allow libraries to circulate their reference materials or lending collections in a safe manner so that patrons can dial up the book that they'd like, reserve it, and then have a librarian bring it out to the car. On the property, you must be mindful of site circulation with the increased number of cars moving through the site.

Another thing I've heard from several librarians is no longer does it make sense to have patrons tethered to computer workstations on a single table. We've heard from a number of librarians that they would really like to move to a model that when patrons arrive they are actually lending laptops that can be checked out, used safely at a distance in the library, and then returned when the patron is done with it. That lets people keep a safe minimum distance between them and it also lets the librarian clean each computer right after they've been used.

In the same spirit, several librarians have decided, or are in the process of deciding, to decommission their public access station. A lot of libraries have a single point of reference to check the collection when they are looking for a book. Several librarians now realize that most everyone with a mobile device can do that without having to use that single point of public access. Those are all important changes that we can anticipate seeing as libraries begin to reopen.

You'll obviously see techniques that a lot of stores have been using such as sneeze guards at checkout counters. Of course, the taped off walkways for people waiting in line. We may start to see librarians request the partitioning of small group study spaces or quiet study spots that you can try to keep patrons safely sequestered at each of those individual locations.

I have talked to one director of libraries in New York who suggested that in all likelihood as libraries begin to reopen, we'll see first the small group study spaces utilized to the fullest extent. Those would be spaces that could support 1-4 people. It is a bit easier to manage people collecting in spaces like that.

With the concern for the physical safety of the patrons, there is really going to be hard question that needs to be asked about the amount of space reserved for collections in libraries, and whether there is some deaccession that needs to happen to allow the collection to get weeded to make more space for patrons. We're going to continue to see shifts in the balance of space within libraries.

I think this is a need that has reached a critical point in development: The transformation of some of the group spaces, whether they are auditoria or large group meeting spaces, into smaller spaces. Also, the likelihood of one of those spaces being dedicated to digital production like what we're doing today ensures libraries have the capacity to create digital content and share it with their patrons digitally.

How can libraries plan for the unforeseen?

Pam: We hope the pandemic is a once in a lifetime crisis, but you and I know the world is changing very quickly, and we never know what's going to be around the corner. How do you plan for the unforeseen?

Jim: I'm so glad you asked that question. That is a tricky one to answer and really depends on the context, but I think the key for us right now is flexibility. I know that has been a buzzword in architecture forever. Everyone seems to think that flexibility is the solution to any unforeseen. In fact, right now it seems to be more relevant than ever. I'd love to share an example of this which is from beyond library world.

Within VMDO Architects (@vmdoarchitects), there are several projects across typologies. I have been working on a student health center at a campus here in Virginia. We were about halfway through the design process when the pandemic hit.

We began by separating the presumptive cases from the otherwise healthy populations at this student health center. As we developed design and moved things forward over the course of the last 5-6 weeks, the new design is very responsive to this issue. What we decided to do with the owner was to locate a flexible workroom toward the front entry so it could serve as a screening space for students coming into the student health center. During normal operations it is obviously a conference room and has a multitude of purposes. During the outbreak it could be used as a triage space and a place to verify the condition of the patients. The lesson for architects is the increased need to think creatively about situational flexibility. It is about planning for the unforeseen by using spaces that can perform a multitude of uses.

Pam: So, Jim, what does this mean for libraries?

Jim: For libraries, it means a need to reduce densities within libraries and then create flexible spaces that can perform the duties that larger spaces used to perform. What that likely means is spacing out the computer desks, the removal of chairs in group meeting rooms, or enlarging meeting spaces. I have talked to a couple of librarians about the idea that they are considering, at least in the near term, closing the stacks and limiting the circulating collection to a front desk or curbside pickup. All the circulation would be done by librarians in the building and then delivered to the patron at the front desk.

I think with all the digital assets being created right now the spaces to create them will be important for libraries. Again, this podcast has opened my eyes to having a room that is acoustically contained and has all the infrastructure necessary to plug a microphone in and get a Zoom call started. I also think we'll see a real expansion of the digital tools necessary to track how library spaces are reserved and used. What that means is a library which has 10 group study rooms for example. The front desk will know who is in those rooms, how long they've been there, and when one becomes vacant then patrons are welcome to use that room. It will be important to digitally track how many users are in the building and where they are so one can more efficiently disperse the users to spaces that are available.

I also think that for so long libraries have been a key component of central space for large communal gatherings and that those days are over for some time. Large meetings that have traditionally been in libraries will happen virtually on Zoom or similar platforms. Those large spaces that used to support those meetings will likely be carved up into smaller spaces.

Finally, there has been a trend for the last few years or longer for creating great outdoor spaces that help connect the library to the site. I cannot help but think that this is going to prompt librarians to consider how they can better utilize spaces outside which benefit from fresh air and let patrons establish a safe distance between one another.

There are a lot of great opportunities. We'll see how many of these come to fruition as libraries begin to open.

Pam: I recently saw an amphitheater created at Auburn Public Library just this year, and I suspect they are using that outdoor space more than their indoor space at this point.

Jim: I bet they are.

Auburn Public Library outdoor classroom
Auburn Public Library amphitheater & outdoor classroom

Pam: It's not just about the pandemic though. What you're talking about, too, is about how technology is coming into our service model in ways we might not have anticipated. Going back to the people-to-people discussion, how can librarians sustain that person-to-person service interaction when we consider the depersonalization that happens when you can't be face-to-face? Is this going to be a new normal and what are the implications?

Jim: I really hope it isn't the new normal, and I think a lot of librarians out there might agree with me. All of those involved in library planning and design really got into this line of work because we love people and building community.

I don't know if I have an answer to your question about the development of person-to-person relationships moves forward. I hope that's OK. The one thing that I do know for sure is that when the economy is in the tank--and I think we all know this is going to be a tough one for all of us to come out of--library use really skyrockets. If you look back to '08/'09, the use of local libraries really expanded and for good reason. People were looking for release; they were using the library to search for jobs; and they were looking for social networking. I can't help but think it will not be any different even though the physical space of a library may look and feel a little bit different.

The services and resources that libraries provide are always going to be in high demand. The real question is how are those resources delivered and what does that delivery look like?

It is an interesting time, and I just cannot wait to see what happens. I will add (and I'm sure you know this, Pam, I've seen your library at home and it's expansive) some people love reading and there are some people for whom e-books just do not resonate. That digital information that many of us are coming to realize opens avenues for some of us just doesn't work for others. There will certainly continue to be people who need those books, ask for those books, reserve those books, and come to the library to get them. Librarians do desperately want people back, but until there is a vaccine and people are willing to take the proper precautions, it's going to be interesting to watch it unfold as we go forward.

How can a need for cleanliness impact environmental design?

Pam: Well the other issue besides distancing, of course, is cleanliness--the idea of keeping surfaces and spaces virus free. I know a lot of your work involves finishes. From your perspective, what are the design considerations when you look ahead to facility maintenance? Certainly, in a situation like the pandemic but also beyond?

Jim: That's a question that is often overlooked. When we design buildings, I feel like more often than not the most recognized items are the spatial characteristics and the beautiful finishes. What is lost in all of it is that there is great care taken in designing a building that is easy to maintain and can be regularly and responsibly cleaned.

Coming from several library friends, as libraries reopen, it really is as much about their cleaning regimen as it is about anything. Even before the pandemic, there were patrons concerned about the cleanliness of materials and spaces, and now some may be even less inclined to borrow books. That is disconcerting but there are a lot of ways to put their minds at ease. Part of that begins with a very thorough schedule of cleaning throughout the day.

I've heard anecdotally that sometimes if staff is cleaning during operating hours, it helps put patrons' minds at ease. It is not something that has to happen only after hours. I would guess that there are more staff doing that kind of work.

Another issue that is going to be interesting to monitor going forward is the issue of decontaminating circulating materials. It sounds likely that materials may have to be isolated for 24 hours or more. And they may have to be cleaned before they are put back on the shelves to recirculate. To do that takes staff and time. It is likely going to take the reservation of some space within the library to house those books while they are going through that process.

When we think about interior spaces and surfaces going forward, a lot of librarians lament the fact that during their last renovation they did not install touchless restroom fixtures or motion-activated lighting to mitigate the amount of touching that happens. Touchless water fountains are another great idea, if the budget supports it, that we will see.

The bright side of this for me and many librarians is that we may begin to see a lot less fabric furniture happening and a lot less carpet. Those things are a little bit harder to clean so I think more resilient surfaces, more hard surfaces which are easy to wipe down will likely be seen more.

Pam: Although then you have the sound issue, right?

Jim: Yes. So, of course, the acoustics get folded into that and will be a major thing to consider as we begin to deploy these new and harder surfaces. The challenge is also going to be that we have always relied upon those surfaces to help lend a welcoming air to the space. Once these surfaces get a little harder and less comfortable to lounge on for hours at a time, another question for designers is going to be how do you replicate the warm, welcoming feeling that the library had prior to change? That's something I'm really interested in thinking about going forward.

I do think another big one, and I mentioned it earlier, is the strong likelihood that in order to accommodate the numbers of patrons that libraries want, they will have to be creative about the amount of space that they dedicate to book storage versus patron space. Does that mean high-density shelving? Does it mean getting creative with what is on the shelves and what's kept off-site? I'm personally anxious to see how both public and academic libraries start to think about that issue.

Lastly, I think this one might sound like the costliest, but it may be the most effective in the long run. Take a close look at the building's mechanical system to verify that it is up to the standard that it needs to be regarding number of cycles per hour to provide fresh air to spaces and making sure that the air does not stagnate within the building. For many libraries that is going to be a stretch or perhaps out of reach.

Pam: It's complex, Jim, isn't it?

Jim: It sure is, but it's exciting. I've heard someone say that you really shouldn't let a serious crisis go to waste, and for a lot of libraries this is going to be a great opportunity to rethink operations, rethink how they serve patrons, and rethink how much time they need to be within the building. I talked with a New York librarian about the appeal to a lot of librarians to partially work from home going forward. That may be good for some people that are concerned about childcare or a long commute. I think librarians have faced challenges and come out ahead. I'm optimistic about the future of libraries and excited to see how things change going forward.

Pam: I'm optimistic about having you back! You have a lot of interesting insights and obviously your experiences are varied and wide. Thank you so much for your time. You will come back, won't you?

Jim: Yes. There are so many other things we didn't get to talk about that I would love to cover with you. I would gratefully accept another invite.

Pam: My best to you and stay home and stay safe.

Thank you for listening to another episode of the Advancing America’s Libraries Podcast. If you have any topic requests, tweet us @IvyGroup or email contact@ivygroup.com.

VMDO Architects | Young Harris College Rollins Campus Center and Zell Miller Library

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Public libraries have responded swiftly to the pandemic, in the tradition of ingenuity and reinvention that has defined their history. Jim Kovach interviewed Marianne Gallagher, Director of the New City Library (NY), to see how she and her staff are adapting during COVID-19.