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Public Employee Press: PEP Talk

A New World

City libraries begin phased reopening

Find out more about library reopenings & services


After shutting down in mid-March, the city’s three library systems have continued their online services during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as the city continues to struggle through a multi-phase opening, libraries in the five boroughs have been in the process of a slow and careful reopening, with a keen eye for safety for thousands of library staff and the public.

On July 13, nearly two dozen branches — 22 to be exact — across the five boroughs reopened for grab-and-go service, where residents can order books online or by telephone, and then pick up their materials from an open branch.

On Sept. 8, the New York Public Library (NYPL) expanded its grab-and-go service to 50 branches, providing patrons with access to limited areas for returns and pick ups. While the Queens Library originally opened only seven branches for to-go service, 22 branches were open by the end of September. And by Sept. 10, the Brooklyn Public Library was offering lobby service at 23 branches, with a planned phased reopening.

For library staff, the experience of transitioning to work while the city slowly opens up has been at times stressful, with safety concerns from both on-the-job and daily commutes.

Joe Reece is a Maintainer and Local 374 Vice President. Based in Manhattan as an electrician, he has worked at all the branches for 36 years. It was a strange time for him working during the coronavirus pandemic, going to work with near empty streets and most businesses closed.

“Management is on board in taking care of their employees. This change in attitude with management has made this place come together, particularly with this pandemic.”

“During the pandemic, I checked buildings one half day, every fourth day each week,” Reece said. “It was weird. Streets empty, post-apocalyptic, in midtown it was strange, with nobody there.”

Now that the libraries are opening up, Reece spoke about how he and his co-workers have been dealing with new safety procedures and looking out for each other and the public.

“You adapt to what it is today and follow protocol,” Reece said. “People stay within the rules in keeping co-workers out of harm’s way. We go out of our way to be supportive.”

Reece has nothing but praise with how the NYPL has handled the library reopening for the staff. “I am grateful working for NYPL for the efforts they’ve taken. They have done great stuff,” he said. “They have been flexible with our guys and are able to change policy on the fly and get it in the next handbook or contract. Human Resources and management have been understanding.

“We’re doing our jobs, and we all live by the rules. Management is on board in taking care of their employees. This change in attitude with management has made this place come together, particularly with this pandemic,” Reece said.

That cooperation and support the NYPL has had with the maintenance staff have had a positive impact on the workforce.

“Things have changed so much, I am so proud of the work I have done there; everybody feels like they are somebody. The vast majority take pride in their work, and it pays off and keeps us going,” Reece said. “There’s always going to be problems, but we work together with management when they happen.”

Leonard Paul, Local 374 President agrees. “Our sisters and brothers of Local 374 were all very eager to get back to work safely because they missed their colleagues and their interactions with the public, especially the kids that they serve,” he said.

For Neighborhood Library Supervisor Catherine Skrzypek, reopening had its issues. As the supervisor of operations and staff at the Williamsburg Branch, her experiences were difficult.

During the shutdown, Skrzypek continued her work at home, checking email, attending Zoom meetings, partaking in online professional development, and learning how to do children’s storytimes via Facebook.

“Personally, I’d say my challenges centered around blurring the lines between home and workspaces, and, especially in March and April, putting work in perspective when there was so much tragedy and sorrow spreading throughout the city,” Skrzypek said.

Now that the Williamsburg branch is reopening, Skrzypek said, “We have limited lobby service where the public can pick up holds and return materials they’ve previously borrowed. Library patrons are grateful to see us again and to get their hands on books and reading materials, and members who visit my branch are respectful about wearing masks while in the lobby and waiting outside for their turns.”

Skrzypek said that with all things COVID-related moving so quickly, making sure all workers have the information they need to do their jobs safety is a priority.

“In spite of the libraries having developed phased-in reopening plans, there is concern that the organization and the city will get ahead of themselves and will accelerate aspects of reopening without fully addressing the safety and needs of library workers,” she said. “With my entire team, especially on things that are important but come up quickly with short notice, communication can be a challenge. We are divided into two teams, where we alternate days working at the library and working remotely at home.”

She hopes that the reopening process is consistently communicated, and that staff can rely on promises to be honored.

“We were told that PPE like masks and wipes were going to be ordered in abundance. When I returned to my branch in July, we were only given one box of masks and one package of disinfecting wipes with 50 sheets. I worried for two weeks that we were going to run out. Fortunately, we received more before that happened, and now we have a steady stream of protective supplies,” Skrzypek said.

While she is able to catch up on work and developing programs, she misses interactions with the public. However, Skrzypek also has concerns.

“The uncertainty that surrounds this virus and pandemic, raises anxieties and uncertainty in my colleagues,” she said. “I hope the library administration and the city will react to the changing landscape of the pandemic in a way that prioritizes the safety and well-being of library workers.”

New York Public Library Guild Local 1930 President Valentin Colon agrees.

“The sentiment from members I’ve heard from, is that communication and caution is key as we proceed with the next reopening phases is key in making the reopening a success for all,” Colon said. “The staff are eager to return, but are also looking to see how working remotely can be a reality once we are clear of this pandemic.

“Library workers seem to be a special breed of person. They see a challenge and take it on. While fear of the unknown is in the minds of every library worker, they look to the future and are ready for that future. My thoughts and prayers go out to every worker who wakes up, looks fear in the eye, and ventures out into the world to meet the challenges of a new day,” he said.