TPL Talks New Safety, Operational Measures Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

TUSCALOOSA, AL. — The Tuscaloosa Public Library’s Story Castle, a small side room typically reserved for children’s story time, has a different look these days. With its stained-glass windows mimicking a medieval castle, the room has been transformed into a staging area for cleaning books once they are returned to the library.

This is just one of the many measures implemented by TPL in an effort to keep patrons and staff safe during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the library to close to the public for roughly a month before reopening on June 2.

“[The books] are brought into this area and it will sit on the table 2-3 days,” said Vince Bellofatto, the library’s director of communications and public relations. “After that point, there’s Clorox wipes and they will be wiped down to be put back into circulation.”

Once the cleaning process is finished, the books are loaded up onto carts and taken to another part of the library to be organized, which ensures another full day of being out to circulation before they are returned to the shelves.

“We didn’t have to reinvent the wheel or change too much up,” Bellofatto said. “We just had to add one or two additional steps. We already had a process of wiping down the materials.”

Bellofatto said the library has yet to have any issues with virus transmission among staff or patrons as a result of visits to TPL or its materials.

He did say, though, that the quarantining and cleaning of books is more of a staff-heavy undertaking, which is somewhat offset by slightly slower patron participation seen due to the pandemic.

Plexiglas barriers at TPL keep staff separated from patrons in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 (Photo by Ryan Phillips, Tuscaloosa Patch)
Plexiglas barriers at TPL keep staff separated from patrons in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19 (Photo by Ryan Phillips, Tuscaloosa Patch)

“We still have patrons that are nervous about coming in and touching materials that are coming from people they’re not familiar with,” Bellofatto said. “But we’re going through this whole process to make sure when they go to the shelf, they are taken care of.”

In looking at the number of patrons each day, the library has definitely seen an impact, but has regulated much of that itself to deter from overcrowding.

Circulation Manager Jennifer Estes told Patch that right now that no more than 50-60 people are allowed in the large building at one time.

“We ran between 400, up to 1,000 a day (before the pandemic) and some days even more than that,” she said. “A total in the day, like for Sundays, we’re running about 130 and 500 is kind of what we’ve topped out on, so we’re incrementally increasing.”

When visiting the library, patrons can expect to see numerous hand sanitizer stations, Plexiglas barriers separating visitors and library staff and yellow caution tape marking off areas where groups of people would typically congregate on a normal day.

On the second floor, sections for research were also cordoned off.

Chairs are stacked and cordoned off to discourage gatherings and lingering patrons as TPL hopes to keep the library clean and free of crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo by Ryan Phillips, Tuscaloosa Patch)
Chairs are stacked and cordoned off to discourage gatherings and lingering patrons as TPL hopes to keep the library clean and free of crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic (Photo by Ryan Phillips, Tuscaloosa Patch)

“One of the groups it’s hit the hardest is the genealogy group,” Bellofatto pointed out. “They come up here and want to congregate and do research and we’re not offering that. They’re very sad about that and hope we can open it up soon, but they understand and that’s something I’ve noticed. How understanding everyone has been.”

The cancellation of programming has also been another area of public engagement that has taken a hit due to the pandemic.

However, Bellofatto said the library has now introduced a grab-and-go system featuring different projects, bundle books and different handouts that can be done at home. Additionally, curbside service is offered for those still unsure about going into the library building.

“The children’s department also offers adventure packs — things that families can do outside or at home as a craft,” he said. “We’re still trying to encourage the typical kind of learning we do in-house for at home.”

In terms of offerings for adults, he explained that the library’s computer lab is open, while also observing social distancing and spacing. Computers will be accessible in 15-minute increments up to 30 minutes, he said. The library’s new eCard has also proven popular among college students as more begin to take advantage of the TPL’s online resources.

Conversely, other tech-focused programs at TPL have moved online, including the maker space on the library’s second floor, which features amenities such as a 3D printer.

“That’s one of the unfortunate things. We have a really good group of teens meeting here and it’s a safe place and great to meet friends,” Bellofatto said of the shift to online for its teen tech offerings. “But I think we’ve done a good job of transitioning these programs online, but not everybody has access to a computer and that’s an issue we have with a lot of different things … not everybody has access to those devices.”

In an effort to bridge that gap and other shortfalls in the community, he said the library does make efforts to go out and do programs at area schools.

“We’re putting together teaching bundles and sending them to the classrooms with either instructions or link they can go on,” Bellofatto said.

As the library hopes to offer an increased sense of normalcy despite the sweeping changes, Estes did point out that fines and late fees will restart on Oct. 1, after being waived since the library reopened in June.

“We’re kind of in an education period with that, so that’s our next big thing,” she said. “We’re also cross-training staff to work in different departments.”

Click here to visit the TPL’s website to learn more about its current offerings and hours of operation.

This article originally appeared on the Tuscaloosa Patch

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