Middle Tennessee libraries adapt to coronavirus restrictions

By Hallie Graham, Opinions Editor

From public elementary school libraries in rural communities to the urban Nashville Public Library, Middle Tennessee’s libraries have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

In mid-March, Tennessee began shutting down due to the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States. Consequently, the libraries did, too. Little did the librarians, volunteers, and families know, it would be months before they could officially reopen. 

Since Middle Tennessee is beginning its reopening phases, librarians are rapidly looking for solutions and reopening strategies while dealing with social and mental roadblocks.

Portland High School has introduced extensive safety measures in addition to the common safety measures like capacity limits and spaced furniture. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Heyboer.

“The interactions I have are my favorite part of the job. My concern is, will I have a connection with new, and returning, students?” Harpeth Hall librarian Leigh Mantle said. “My main challenge will be building relationships at a distance.”

Some area librarians cannot effectively do their work because of domestic concerns. “Both of my daughters are distance learning. So, did they wake up? Are they eating well? Did they have a technical problem? Do they need something? Having them home and me here makes me feel mentally divided all day.” Harpeth Hall librarian Susan Timmons said. 

Besides the emotional harm, coronavirus has hurt libraries economically. “We shut down all service on March 20th and were not able to serve large groups in our community. Groups are huge for us,” Portland Public Library museum clerk Paula Shannon said. 

Not as many people are going to libraries because of safety concerns. “We go sometimes but not often,” a former regular of the Gallatin Public Library, Mattie Graham said, confirming libraries’ loss of patronage.

Although they have experienced coronavirus complications, libraries refuse to be defeated and are putting reopening plans in action. Jennifer Heyboer, the librarian at Portland High School, stated that the library staff has had “free reign to shape the policies to make [their] library environment as safe and usable as possible.” 

Similarly, the librarians at Harpeth Hall agreed that the administration has been occupied with creating overarching reopening plans; therefore, the librarians were trusted as the experts of their space. 

Not only have their spaces been altered, but daily tasks have also been changed by the needs of the community during the pandemic. At Harpeth Hall, librarians shifted their focus from compiling physical titles to helping teachers and finding kid-friendly online resources. 

“Research was more difficult for younger girls because they haven’t been trained yet in using online resources,” Harpeth Hall librarian Alice Bryant said. “Communication with teachers became my main job.”

In addition to communication, librarians have become the officers of their libraries’ newfound pandemic rules. “We try not to give demerits here in the library, but we might have to remind [students] who are violating safety measures,” Ms. Timmons said. 

State-mandated mask requirements have prompted libraries to enforce strict coronavirus policies of their own, as Ms. Timmons predicts she will have to do. According to the Gallatin Public Library’s Facebook, as of July 6, “Face masks are now required on library premises.”

Jennifer Heyboer, the librarian at Portland High School’s library, stated that the library staff has had “free reign to shape the policies to make [their] library environment as safe and usable as possible.” Photo courtesy of Jennifer Heyboer.

Like Gallatin, the Portland Public Library’s website says patrons will be greeted at the door by signs reminding them of the mask requirements, temperature checks and capacity restrictions.

Harpeth Hall and Montgomery Bell Academy mandate masks in their libraries and throughout their buildings. Heyboer reported that Portland High School has introduced extensive safety measures in addition to the common safety measures like capacity limits and spaced furniture.

Libraries’ unique transaction model poses even larger problems than the mask mandates. Patrons check books out instead of purchasing them. Depending on the amount of traffic a title gets, contamination is the main issue facing libraries, because coronavirus bacteria can survive on surfaces for up to three days.

Harpeth Hall is quarantining books for three days before they are reshelved, a procedure based on a study done by REALM (Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums), who helps institutions reopen safely.

At the Portland Library, Shannon said that books “stay in [the return slot] for another 24 hours. They are cleaned and then shelved after around 2 days.”

Some libraries are not offering in-person browsing to prevent contamination. At Harpeth Hall, students select titles through the digital catalog. Then, a librarian bags the books and puts them outside for pick-up. “We are trying to get the books to [students] in the safest way possible,” Ms. Mantle explained.

At all branches of the Nashville Public Library, in-person browsing was suspended until Sept. 4 due to contamination risks; however, curbside pick-up is available in most areas.

Vanderbilt University’s libraries are emphasizing their material pick-up service and online resources. All undergraduate students moved in between Aug. 17 and 22, and the libraries must do their part to comply with social distancing. 

Across the board, libraries are doing all they can to get community members back into books. While there may be restrictions in place for now, libraries are steadily returning to form. 

“This is just a temporary phase.” Montgomery Bell Academy librarian Jane McMahon said, “Even though we may not love all the changes we have to implement right now, we’re just trying to keep things in perspective and realize that this won’t be forever.”

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