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Coronavirus Tests the Limits of America’s Public Libraries

BloombergCityLab: “In April, a Johns Hopkins University report for governors on reopening drew such fierce backlash from librarians that the authors eventually revised their guidance. The report had initially deemed libraries a low-risk environment, meaning contact with other people is brief, “fairly distant” and with a few people. But “the study tainted the view of people at the state level,” said Callan Bignoli, the director of the library at Olin College of Engineering, in Needham, Massachusetts. “They’re thinking libraries are quiet and chill, with airy reading rooms where people just grab books off the shelves and don’t interact with each other. That is absolutely not the case.” The amended guidance noted that libraries could be medium to high risk when they function as “community centers.” Public libraries are, in fact, one of the last free spaces in the U.S. where vulnerable populations can seek out unemployment assistance, internet and computer access, and daytime shelter from the streets; for some, they’re also de facto child-care centers.  “Libraries aren’t in the business of books — they’re in the business of communities,” said Curtis Rogers at the Urban Libraries Council. That means workers in major public systems can interact with hundreds of patrons daily in an enclosed space, where people share everything from books to furniture and computers to printing machines. Now, as states begin to reopen, libraries are figuring out how to safely serve their communities again, amid the threat of an ongoing pandemic in which person-to-person transmission is riskiest in indoor spaces where people linger for a long time. Some smaller libraries have started allowing the public back inside their buildings in a limited capacity, which worries Bignoli. She has been an outspoken advocate for the rights and safety of library workers, and helped start a nationwide petition calling for governments and employers to allow workers to make demands for protection…”

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