By: Bina Wilens
Flashback to March, a time of worldwide panic and uncertainty. Within our city of Chicago, the normally bustling streets became increasingly isolated as more and more people stayed home, worried for their own health and the health of loved ones. Restaurants, schools, and movie theaters were forced to close, and libraries became a mere memory of the past.
While brave medical personnel were out on the frontlines treating COVID-19 patients, many of us stayed locked in our homes, somewhat safe from the virus, but victims of our own persistent emotions and thoughts. As we attempted to drown out these hopeless thoughts, our music became louder and our stack of library books became smaller as we read through them all.
When would the library be open again? This was one of the many questions that had no answer.
Well, in early June, the Rogers Park Branch library on Clark Street reopened its doors to patrons, offering as many resources as they could while still following COVID-19 restrictions put in place by the city. With a few alterations and a new layout for the building, the staff on Clark Street have managed to create and maintain a safe environment for patrons and staff.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Jacqueline Hui, who has worked at the Rogers Park Branch since 1992. Hui works to ensure operations run smoothly at the library; her main roles include programming and outreach as well as building management. However, many of the services and programs Hui helps coordinate had to be suspended back in March.
Further, Hui provided details on the extensive precautions being taken to maintain a safe environment. For instance, there is a strict mask mandate and a 25-person limit in the building at a time, along with several other precautions. There are also still a number of online resources available for the community, according to Hui, such as online tutoring for students, story time, and adult book discussions.
Although we cannot physically venture out into the world as freely as we once could, thanks to the library we are fortunate to be able to explore many different avenues within our minds.
*Interview has been edited for length and clarity
Bina Wilens: So, you have reopened, what kinds of precautions are you taking to ensure the safety of workers and patrons?
Jaqueline Hui: We have actually done a lot. To begin with, we placed a capacity limit of 25, not including staff. We redesigned, especially the first floor, we used to have a lot more tables and chairs, we got rid of a lot to make sure there is social distancing between patrons. We took out a number of computers, we went from 24 to only 4. This allows more space for each computer user. The process of checking out books is different; we have plexiglass erected at each desk and
patrons return their own items; we try not to touch their items. And procedures for returns are also different, everything is dropped off in the box outside and those items are quarantined for four days.
Wilens: Are you reopening in stages? Are you going to gradually increase the capacity limit? And when do you think you would allow more people?
Hui: We work for the city of Chicago, so that number was determined by many departments, largely based on the social distance requirements, and I don’t really anticipate increasing that number, unless as a nation we improve drastically. It has worked out well because most people are very careful, they come to pick up their order and leave.
Wilens: Are there ways you can assist a student online who may have extraneous needs?
Hui: At this point, no, but we do have a database called Brainfuse, which offers online homework help. So, if anyone really wants help with homework, they can text the tutor on duty.
Wilens: What are your next steps in reopening?
Hui: I know at this point we are looking to be a little more involved with online programming.
Wilens: What other types of online programming are you looking into specifically?
Hui: Actually, while we were closed, we did offer story time online. The Chicago Public Library downtown organized online story time. They involved famous actors or personalities to do readings, like Obama. Since then, some specific locations have gone ahead and continued with online story time, and we will also be extending online story time. Book discussions also continued during COVID.
Wilens: Overall, do you feel operations are going smoothly? Is there anything you would change about what’s happening?
Hui: I think at this point we’ve reached a level where we feel we can come into work without jeopardizing ourselves or our patrons; we have procedures down pat, patrons are comfortable, and they seem to know the drill. We have reached a point where things seem to be operating nicely.
For more information about the Rogers Park Branch visit their website at https://www.chipublib.org/locations/61/.