Libraries in San Jose, Santa Clara County take first steps to reopen

As more pandemic-related restrictions are lifted in Santa Clara County, city and county libraries are looking to turn a new page as well — beginning with curbside book checkouts and drop-offs later this month.

Santa Clara County Librarian Jennifer Weeks says community and employee safety is her biggest concern, but she understands that libraries can safely follow a similar trajectory as retail with materials available for drop-off and pick-up outside.

“It’s a gradual, soft return,” Weeks said of this first step.

The librarian adds that while a start date for curbside service isn’t set, they are eyeing mid-June. The service would be available Monday through Saturday at each of the library district’s eight locations.

Similarly, the San Jose Public library — which operates 25 locations throughout the city — is also planning its own Monday through Saturday curbside service starting June 15.

Library Director Jill Bourne says the library will be calling it an “express pick-up service” and is waiting on the green light from city management to begin providing the option to patrons.

The city and county libraries are also planning free meal programs that are traditionally offered while students are on summer break from school.

In the county, “grab and go” meals are being provided at the Gilroy and Morgan Hill libraries on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays starting this week. They will be available from 12 p.m. to 1 p.m. in Gilroy and 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Morgan Hill.

The city will provide meals at the Alum Rock, Edenvale, Educational Park and Hillview library branches from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday starting June 15.

The county library district has asked library patrons to hold onto their materials during the shelter-in-place order but will start accepting them once the curbside model is in place. Weeks emphasizes, however, that there will be no rush to return the materials — adding that there will be a grace period of several weeks.

The city libraries haven’t required returns during shelter-in-place either, but have accepted them in the book drops on the outside of the buildings. Bourne says staff is periodically collecting them to prevent a large pile of materials from stacking on the floor.

Both library systems intend to hold onto the books and other library materials for 72 hours before re-shelving them, which is the recommended wait time from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Weeks said.

Although libraries have been physically closed during the shelter-in-place period that began March 17, they have expanded their digital offerings with various features and services, including online story times and electronic library cards for those who don’t have a physical card and want access to online materials. Bourne says they have issued nearly 7,500 e-cards since the libraries closed.

Both Weeks and Bourne say electronic book use at the libraries has soared, with 230,000 checked out this year versus 100,000 by April of last year in the county system, and a more than 83 percent increase in the San Jose libraries.

The San Jose libraries have added virtual stress relief and mindfulness sessions and more than 80 additional story times in several languages. Meanwhile, the county library system is attracting worldwide attention with its English Conversation Club for non-native English speakers. The program previously existed at the library but has since expanded its reach in its virtual iteration.

“People from Peru and Canada and all over the world are zooming in with us to participate,” Weeks said.

While the librarians are appreciative of all the creative work by library employees to keep the libraries operating safely through the coronavirus pandemic, Bourne acknowledges the significant lack of access for some. Residents who do not have internet access rely on the books and computer use they can only get from stepping inside physical libraries.

Through San Jose’s emergency operation center, Bourne is working with a team to address this digital divide exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Getting our patrons access to technology again is one of our highest priorities,” Bourne said.

However, getting Wi-Fi and electronic devices into the hands of the tens of thousands of residents who need them would be expensive, Bourne notes. She adds that the team is looking into potential partnerships that could help make it happen.

“You realize that this person’s entire access is cut off,” Bourne said. “How can we break down that barrier?”

Once the libraries open their doors again, there will be enhanced safety measures in place with frequent cleanings and layouts designed for social distancing. Unfortunately, this means computer use will also likely be limited for a while.

“We’re not putting anybody (in close contact with each other) for some time,” Weeks said. “We are absolutely considering carefully each step we take.”

Contact Carina Woudenberg at Carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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