Should libraries be open during a pandemic?
On March 13, in response to the rapidly growing novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the Sonoma County Library made the difficult decision to cancel events taking place in our libraries. A few days later we closed all library facilities, in compliance with the county shelter-in-place order.
No library director ever wants to close a library. It’s a heartbreaking choice, but staying closed is the right thing to do, to protect the public and our staff. The closure is all-encompassing. We are unable to offer curbside pickup for books and other materials, or accept returns of borrowed materials (although all due dates have been extended).
The County of Sonoma agrees. We discussed this matter with the county health department, and they support our decision. There are too many unknowns at this point for us safely receive and redistribute potentially contaminated materials. We don’t want to unknowingly help spread the virus, and we can’t justify using masks, gloves, sanitizers and other protective equipment when they are desperately needed by health care workers.
The county’s Emergency Operations Center agrees as well, and issued a statement. It reads, in part: “Librarians should be home and sheltered in place. They are not essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Library staff are not equipped to safely handle physical books and interact with the public. We must weigh our desire for the pleasure of reading with the health risk to the librarians. Library patrons are reminded that there are books available electronically through our public library system.”
Sonoma County is not alone in this regard. The largest library associations in the nation, including the American Library Association and the California Library Association, are strongly recommending that libraries suspend operations during this time, while we do our part to slow the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, the Sonoma County Library is working diligently to plan how to reopen quickly and effectively when it is safe, and we are adding new and exciting materials to our 24/7 online library. Visit sonomalibrary.org to access tens of thousands of electronic books, audiobooks, TV shows, movies, magazines, instructional videos, research databases and more. Your kids can even watch cartoons and animated storybooks. We have Spanish-language resources as well.
We thank everyone who misses their library. We miss you, too and we will be so happy to see you in our branches when we reopen! Being able to come back to the library, chat with a librarian, bring your children to a storytime, browse books and other materials, or use our free WiFi will all be proof of our local and national effort to contain a serious public health crisis.
Ann Hammond, Sonoma County Library Director