How you can still use NJ libraries during COVID-19 crisis
Folks who frequent them believe a reopening is long overdue, but libraries are among the buildings in New Jersey still closed to the public during the COVID-19 public health crisis.
Library leaders suggest they likely won't be welcoming any patrons until at least July 6. For the past several weeks, libraries have been working to deliver their programming, as much as they can, through online platforms. They want you to know they are more than just buildings with books.
"During this pandemic, I know that more and more people have turned to libraries as an outlet," said Keisha Miller, teen librarian and volunteer coordinator for South Orange Public Library. "People are just amazed at what we're able to provide."
More than 85 individuals joined a virtual program offered by Scotch Plains Public Library that aimed to educate residents on how to de-clutter their homes, according to library director Michelle Willis. Book groups normally held in person are instead taking place over the video conferencing program Zoom.
"I have been asked via email from residents when we can open, even if it were some kind of contact-free-checkout type of scenario," Willis said. "We have daily visitors. We miss them as much as they miss us."
Working off information sent by the Office of the Attorney General, the New Jersey State Library said curbside pickup of library materials is likely violating Gov. Phil Murphy's Executive Order 107. Nonessential retail businesses were permitted to offer curbside pickup in May, but libraries are not included in that category.
During a Thursday afternoon media briefing on COVID-19, a member of Murphy's staff told reporters the administration is "working on guidance for libraries." A June 1 social media post by the Governor's Office suggested libraries and museums would be "phased in" starting July 6, as part of "Stage 2" of recovery.
Interpretation of the law has not stopped select libraries from offering curbside services. Jersey City Free Public Library, following extensive talks with City Hall and the Governor's Office, has been utilizing a Bookmobile since June 1 to give residents access to books without needing to enter a library branch, according to director Jeffrey Trzeciak.
"They were concerned as we are about materials being returned, so we're not accepting returns right now," Trzeciak said. "We gave them a fairly detailed overview of how we're handling materials."
Pickup times are scheduled every 15 minutes to limit overlap of patron visits, he said. People are encouraged to wear masks and show up alone.
"We have had significant demand from our community," Trzeciak said. "We've had activity at every one of our branches around the city."
Libraries in New Jersey have either blocked their drop-off boxes meant for returns, or have procedures in place to ensure books aren't touched for a certain period of time upon their return.
"The hardest part for librarians during this pandemic is not being able to serve their public in person and to only serve them virtually," said Jeanne Marie Ryan, public relations chair for the New Jersey Library Association. "The problem is, not every community has the same level of broadband access."
With most New Jerseyans shut out from temporarily retrieving physical books from libraries, audiobook and e-book usage "is exploding right now," according to the Morris Automated Information Network, the nonprofit that helps facilitate shared services to dozens of libraries in the Greater Morris County area.
"It was kind of a niche product for a long time," said executive director Phillip Berg.
And an analysis of usage found there's little overlap between the in-person customer database and those using e-books, suggesting libraries are hitting a new demographic during this health crisis.
Library systems allow residents to apply online for a library card or for temporary access to materials.
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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at firstname.lastname@example.org.