By ZACH KAYSER
As of March 29, the Winona Public Library (WPL) reopened for patrons to browse the stacks for the first time in a year.
Readers could enter the 122-year-old building to hunt for books for the first time since the pandemic began — for 20 minutes at a time.
Sadly, the reopening for browsing lasted fewer than five days before WPL announced it would be shuttering again due to a COVID exposure that week. Staff tentatively said browsing might resume late next week or early the following week. However, curbside pickup and item returns would continue throughout.
Like many aspects of reopening in recent months, the degree to which area libraries allow access varies from place to place. For example, Rochester’s public library began an express browsing option March 11 where no appointment is necessary and patrons are allowed 30 minute time slots. The Blue Earth County Library in Mankato, Minn., has one-hour time slots, also with no appointment required. However, appointments are required if patrons want to visit the children’s section, and only one family or group is allowed in at a time. The La Crosse library started its “intentional browsing” express program in mid-February. The time limit was unspecified but the library’s website described the user experience as similar to going to the grocery store in that it should be “done with a clear purpose and for a short duration.”
Several libraries have also removed chairs in order to prevent people from congregating.
Interviewed at WPL the day before it shut down, Samantha Berhow, adult services librarian, said when planning the reopening staff looked at how other libraries were handling their reopenings. However, WPL focused on what was right for Winona specifically. “It’s time to get people back in the building,” she said. “We’re ready.”
The path to reopening was not easy for the Winona library. Even as the pandemic raged outside, they faced an internal crisis when their basement flooded, threatening the children’s book section that had resided in that spot since 1921. Both maintenance staff and the librarians themselves worked to move 35,000 materials upstairs to keep them safe while the water intrusion issue was fixed.
Tricia Wehrenberg, youth services librarian, said this caused a delay in the planned reopening — before the library could be open for browsing, staff wanted to make sure there were organized books to browse in the first place. “We’ve been wanting [to reopen] for some time now, so we’re happy that we’re finally logistically able to make it happen in a way that can be safe for both our patrons and staff,” Wehrenberg said.
Use of the new browsing system has been slow but meaningful, Wehrenberg said. The first day of reopening, a student came in looking for primary sources to help support a research paper — music to a librarian’s ears. Library regulars who browse as a pastime have also gotten enjoyment out of finally being able to return.
Donna Kamman, who came in to browse late Thursday morning, said she had waited for that moment since the pandemic began a year ago and that it was one of the happiest she had experienced since last March. Immediately after taking off her jacket she made a beeline to the new arrivals section to see what had come in lately.
Wehernberg said that although they prefer patrons call ahead or schedule an appointment online, they will not turn away walk-ins. The library’s commitment to service was also evident earlier in the pandemic, when they allowed brief stints of computer access to patrons. Those who are financially disadvantaged or otherwise don’t have access to a computer depend on the library for using the internet and other tasks that are essential in the modern world.
Berhow said the Winona library is in the midst of planning a full reopening, to take place in the next several months.