Nebraska public libraries are the hubs and public living rooms of communities, but they are now adapting to a socially distanced world.

Like most other public spaces, libraries are beginning the long and exploratory process of reopening. Out of Nebraska’s nearly 290 public libraries, some remain closed while others have cautiously opened their doors. 

“It’s a whole new world,” said Karen Connell, director of Columbus Public Library. “Trying to determine what we’re allowed to do, what we should do is a challenge.”

Columbus Public Library plans on reopening June 22 with limited hours, less seating and restricted computer use. Patrons will also be responsible for signing liability waivers, which is required at all public facilities in Columbus. 

Nebraska libraries that have re-opened are offering hand sanitizer and requiring library employees to wear face masks. Others are installing plastic guards to their check-out and service desks.

Gov. Pete Ricketts has announced that starting June 22 most Nebraska counties will see fewer COVID-19 restrictions. Indoor gathering spots such as libraries will be limited to 50% capacity, up from 25% capacity. During the next phase of re-opening, libraries will be able to operate at full capacity. 

“That number will increase over time, but libraries are starting out cautiously and working from there,” said Rod Wagner, director of the Nebraska Library Commission. 

According to Wagner, most public libraries are reopening in coordination with their local communities and city officials. Many of the restrictions libraries have adopted are similarly in accordance with their local health department. 

“I think some of those practices will likely continue for a great amount of time in the future until it’s determined they can relax some of those,” Wagner said.

LincolnLibrarySign scaled - Reshelving and social distancing the new reality as libraries re-open
Lincoln Public Libraries offer book pick-up curbside service until they reopen. Photo by Jessica Fargen Walsh

North Platte Public Library has been open since May 11, due to the low number of COVID-19 cases in the area. Residents were relieved to have access to books once again, including Sky Seery, a North Platte Library Advisory Board member and frequent patron. 

“I make it a habit to go get books, see what’s happening, even just to talk to people in my community,” Seery said. “Not having that was so different.”

Not only do libraries lend books, but they also provide spaces for storytime readings, computer and WiFi access, teen programs and much more. 

Cecelia Lawrence, director of North Platte Public Library, said she believes libraries play a much more vital role in communities than people give them credit for.

“A homeless person could come in and get their hands thoroughly washed and may not have the possibility elsewhere,” she said. “People may not think of the libraries in that role, but they’re there for those different populations.”

The resources offered by libraries can also present a risk of transmission. Although CDC research shows that the coronavirus does not live on paper for long, it can survive on plastic surfaces, such as the plastic coverings on library books, for up to three days. Most libraries are letting books sit out for at least three days and sanitizing them before reshelving.

“I think we’ve made good choices to keep everyone safe,” Lawrence said. 

Hastings Public Library has more than 400 people registered for its summer reading program. Shortly after stay-at-home orders, the library also installed lockers outside of the library to facilitate a contactless pick-up and drop-off for books. 

“As soon as they were installed, our phone hasn’t stopped ringing with people wanting to get books reserved,” said Morgan Karel, Hastings Public Library public relations coordinator.

Lincoln public libraries are doing pick-up and offer book bundles, a selection of five to 10 books chosen based on a patron’s genre preferences. But, all eight branches remain closed to the general public.

Seery said she is unsure when she will feel comfortable enough to spend an extended amount of time in the library.

“It’s so hard to say when I can just browse and hang out like I used to,” Seery said. “Maybe this fall, but it’s gonna depend on what the climate is like.”

For a list of library openings, visit the state library commission’s website.

Madeleine Grant is a junior at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln studying journalism. She enjoys reading, writing and travel. Madeleine is from Illinois and aspires to become a professional journalist or editor.