Editor's Note: This article was written in response to a question submitted through Open Source.
MANSFIELD — With stores, restaurants and hair salons preparing to open in Ohio this week, one entity remains in limbo: public libraries.
The Mansfield/Richland County Public Library closed all nine of its branches on March 17, shortly after Gov. Mike DeWine announced restrictions on large groups. Nearly 140 staff members between all nine locations have been working from home the last two months.
The plan for reopening is a bit more complicated.
"A library is a very unique entity," said Jessica Ney, community engagement coordinator for the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library. "It's hard to say when the governor is using broad words like 'offices' and 'services,' a library is such a conglomeration of so many different services we haven't yet fallen into a specific category for the governor to announce."
In lieu of any specific directive from the state government, the library has followed the guidelines of Richland Public Health and the Ohio Library Council in creating a safe plan for reopening. No specific date for reopening to the public has been determined.
"We are just in the first stage of our reopening plans," Ney said. "Although it's not certain when we're going to be open back to the public, we're anxiously awaiting those days."
A few best practices outlined by the Ohio Library Council include monitoring traffic in and out of library, limiting library users to a safe distance capacity, and posting a sign at entrances notifying customers to stop if they are sick and ask them not to enter the library.
As part of the library's reopening plans, all nine branches of the Mansfield/Richland County Public Library will offer curbside service beginning May 18. Curbside service will follow physical distancing guidelines including talking with the customer through a passenger window, loading items directly into the customer’s trunk without contact, or making labeled items available at the door.
"Everything will have gone through all of the recommended sanitation guidelines provided to us by the state and Richland Public Health," Ney said. "Everything that comes in will have to be quarantined for a certain amount of time. We are still fine-tuning those details."
In addition, beginning May 11, library return boxes will be open and MRCPL asks patrons to return all previously checked out library materials. All due dates for currently checked-out items have been extended to May 30.
Ney said offering physical materials to the public again was a huge step for both the library and the community.
"We're aware a large percentage of our patrons are not internet savvy," she said. "They get a lot of those services from us when they come into the library, so our staff is eager to service those people in the community who maybe have been feeling left out because they can't navigate the internet and they rely on our actual physical materials."
For patrons who are more adept at digital services, the library still offers a wide variety of resources that are free to anyone that has an eCard or a regular library card. With those services, Ney said, there is an endless supply of online books, e-books, audio books, streaming services for movies and TV, and school and employment resources.
The library is also preparing to increase virtual programming to replace in-person programming while the libraries are still closed. Other in-person services like free wireless internet is also still available for creative patrons - Ney said there will often be cars parked outside of library buildings or people sitting outside to take advantage of free WiFi.
As anxious as many patrons are for the reopening of the libraries, Ney said the branch staff is just as excited.
"Our branches are such an integrated part of their community, we know there is a big hole in everybody's hearts, from our staff to the patrons in our community," Ney said.
"It's been so unfortunate, just as many other closures have been so unfortunate, but there's been an outpouring of our staff saying they can't wait to get back and be able to physically help the public."