”There is a crack in everything – that is how the light gets in”. Experiences with reopening libraries in the age of corona


Denmark are slowly reopening and so are the libraries. This blog post will be about our practical considerations and actions on reopening libraries in Roskilde Municipality after almost two months of lockdown due to coronavirus. Even though the situation and practical circumstances varies from country to country and library to library, hopefully it can be of inspiration to others who are facing a step-by-step reopening of library services in the coming times. 

The Roskilde story

“There is a crack in everything – that is how the light gets in” Leonard Cohen sings in the song Anthem. Right now, for many citizens in the Roskilde community, that ‘crack’ is a hatch in a plexiglass window at our 6 libraries were they can get requested books, journals, music etc. again after almost 2 months of closure. It feels both liberating, important and right to be reopening libraries slowly in Denmark at this time but also alerting and with a huge amount of respect for the situation and the safety of staff and citizens – that is our main priority. Below I will as detailed as possible try to explain how we went about balancing safety with the reopening of some library services.

The context for this reopening of libraries in Roskilde is: Roskilde Municipality, Denmark has 85.000 citizens and our library organization consists of 6 libraries (one city library in Roskilde city were 50.000 of the 85.000 citizens live and 5 branch libraries in local communities), 3 local archives, 1 library bus, citizen services and a House of Culture for Children. 120 employees in total. At a press conference on the evening of March 11 2020, the Danish Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen, declared a closure of all non-critical public sector institutions likes schools, kindergartens, universities and libraries for 14 days. All public sector employees who do not perform critical functions was to be sent home for 14 days. The reason for this action was to slow down the spread of coronavirus which has been moving extremely fast in Denmark in the days up to March 11. 10 days after the lockdown was extended for 4 more weeks.

I’ve described our actions of closing down in the blog post “Coronavirus and libraries: Staying safe and staying relevant”. Our first actions after closing down library buildings and taking care of staff was – like almost any library around the world – to transform our programs and services and move them to digital platforms insisting that the library was not closed during the pandemic, it was just different and could still make a huge and positive impact on communities. I collected a lot of this in the blog post “Never let a serious crisis go to waste”: Libraries transforming in the age of Corona“.

The case is now that according to authorities COVID-19 in Denmark is under control and a step-by-step opening of society can proceed including libraries – but with limitations.

Opening the physical collection, not the library buildings

The main take is that libraries can open the physical collection for request while library buildings must still be closed for normal stay and use. Our main task, in my opinion, is to find ways that puts the safety of staff and citizens above all and find great solutions so the community can access the physical collection.

In Roskilde we opened for requests to our physical collection on Wednesday April 29 at 8 am and on the first 15 minutes 200 request has already been made. The vital community need for free and equal access to stories, cultural activity and life-long learning don’t get swiped away by a pandemic – if anything that need just become even more vital.

Citizens in social distance line to pick up requested books, journals etc. at Roskilde Library

The services we have opened are in short:

  • Requests from the physical collection
  • Pick-up on all 6 libraries all days except Sunday at the city library and Wednesday and Saturday at the branch libraries
  • Pick-up time is between 12 – 15 on weekdays and 10 – 14 on Saturdays (we are gonna extend that time in the coming weeks)

Not being able to open up the physical library buildings and let people in we were looking for a sought of ‘drive-in’ solution as you know if from McDonalds (just without the car). At all of our 6 libraries we were trying to identify:

  • the best place to install a plexiglass window with a hatch that meet the need for distance and shield between staff and citizens
  • the practical potential for congestions (need to have solid space outside the hatch so citizens has a chance to be distanced in a queue) and safe and
  • good work conditions for staff to work requests and handout to citizens.

We found a great place for a hatch at all our 6 libraries and the solution has worked just great. That hatch is were the lights get in right now I’m telling you.

The plexiglass hatch solution at our branch library in Viby

Safety instruction balanced with good library solutions

The safety of staff and citizens should be ranked above all and we have put a lot of effort in finding the right solutions. It’s been a team effort involving the staff and workplace safety representatives and everybody has been facing this vital area of the task with a professional and constructive attitude and I’m grateful for that. I can not underline enough how important it is to involve staff in solutions like this – those are often the ones with the most practical know-how when it comes to core library business and it is them who will be in the front line when we roll the solutions out so they should have a big saying in how it is done.

A main focus area for us has been to keeping staff needed to come to the workplace to a minimum to better keep them distanced from each other and to minimize the risk of infections. Because of this we have only opened for requests in the collection at our city library in Roskilde which has by far the largest collection. In one workday there are only 5 people at work at the city library; 3 for the finding and delivery of material and 2, a child librarian and an adult librarian, for staffing mail and telephone. From 10-14
During the delivery, you change to standing at the door, so that you do not stand too long in potential draught from the hatch.

At the beginning of a workday all on duty wash their hands as soon as they show up at the workplace and do frequent hand washing throughout the day. Before leaving the workplace, wash hands again.
Each day starts with a security briefing at 9 am where the manager in charge of the day, who is also that day’s security officer, reminds of good hand hygiene and that one must remember to keep a distance. Here you can also ask questions about procedures and have other issues clarified. The briefings will be held in the new part of the library where there is room to keep 2 meters away from each other.

Users reserve the materials from home, we find and lend the materials to them. They will be notified by mail or sms with the reservation number that the material is ready for collection in the period from 12 to 15 on weekdays and 10 – 14 on Saturdays.

The materials are on loan for 31 days. If the material is not collected within 7 days, it will be returned. The user shows the reservation number by the hatch and a colleague helps find and deliver the materials. The material is placed on the table so that there is no risk of physical contact between staff and users. All the shipping and handling instructions are sent to mail and telephone to the citizens in advance.

Requested materials ready to be picked up

We find the requested materials during the morning so that the materials are ready from 12. Mail and text messages send automatical to the library user says when and were to pick it up. It also says that you should contact us if you are not interested in the material anymore. Before starting the retrieval of requests it is agreed and organized in which areas of the collection the individual staff member are handling as not to get too close to each other.

Toilets are cleaned and discharged daily. Contact surfaces – such as handles – are cleaned daily with universal cleaning or alcohol. We make sure not to share equipment like phones, keyboards and such.

For other insights on how to handle infection prevention I like to recommend Jane Cowell’s great post “COVID-19 Infection Preventions Tips for Libraries

So how to handle returns?

Sadly I don’t got a straight answer to that at this moment. The library sector has tried for weeks to get some guidelines from the health authorities but without any luck yet. So at the moment we don’t take returns and fines are suspended as well. We will probably start taking in returns from May 18 – we need the circulation – and my guess is that we will be looking at somekind of 48 hours qurantine period for the materials. I will keep you updated on this as soon as I know more.

Insigths, ideas and suggestions are very welcomed.

Assistance to non-digital citizens

The request-and-collect solution is great with people for whom the internet is an integrated part of life. But not everybody is online, not everybody says ‘yay’ and go to the library web site and requests a bunch of books. Some citizens might never have tried to be online and some might not have internet (and can’t go to the library to access because the library is closed). The library should be there for them too and mayby now more than ever so we have set up a library assistance hotline so citizens can call in to get help requesting books. We have also been calling up all our listed non-mobile citizens who subscribes to our ‘The Library to the door’ service (were they can phone in, request books and we make sure they are send to there home) to hear if they needed assistance.

Our librarian Jan is helping citizens by requesting materials 

I hope this was of inspiration for some of you. Feel free to share thoughts and insights in the comments or reach out to me on Twitter or in the contacts

Stay awesome and stay safe




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