Reopening, Reimagining

Season 3, Episode 1

This episode, we ask how the pandemic can help us re-imagine what we use libraries for. Plus, we talk to LA County Library about how extreme weather is impacting their reopening, and dig into the science of how we are keeping you (and your books) healthy.

Want to read more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:

Plus, you can listen to both podcasts we mentioned in this episode! Writ Large is a podcast about how books changed the world. And Audio Interference has a new podcast series about archiving prison abolition efforts. 

Click here for a list of book recommendations curated for this episode.

Episode Transcript

Juana Flores We didn't anticipate the amount of books that were going to be returned. So you got to imagine a big laundry, it’s like a big laundry bin … but it's like three times as big as that, full of books. By the end of the third day … there was, like, about ten tubs.

Adwoa Adusei That’s Juana Flores, the children’s librarian at Kings Highway.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Her branch was one of the first six locations in Brooklyn to reopen for lobby service back in July, and from the very first few days it was clear that many, many people in Brooklyn really wanted to give us their books back — enough people to fill ten tubs of books! And, we did a rough measurement on those tubs, they're like three feet square by three feet deep. So it’s a lot of books.

Adwoa Adusei And it wasn’t just getting their books out of their apartments that people were excited about … here’s Dennis Stewart, the branch manager at Kings Highway Library.

Bins of books returned to Kings Highway Library when the branch first re-opened.
(Juana Flores, Brooklyn Public Library)

Dennis Stewart The thing that really jumped out at me was, like, our return bins. It's just like, right, as soon as you come in the door, you can put them in, but people just, even in the short time, they make sure they say hi and they made sure they say bye and smile. It's just like, people are so happy to interact with library staff again. 

Juana Flores We have a lot of phone calls and they're always saying, like, when is the library going to be open fully? And that's like the number one question that they ask.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Along with the rest of New York City, and the country, we’re slowly opening our doors again. And it’s a balance: Our desire to provide service to our community with the need to keep everyone safe and healthy. And yes, Brooklyn, you can physically borrow our books again. I went to Bay Ridge Library the other day to hear what patrons think about being able to come back to their local library.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So what brings you back to the branch today?

Ivonne Casallas The wonderful selection of books, and the fact that we are able to use the materials, you know, for my child to enhance her reading. We used to go and participate in some of the arts that they used to do, throughout her childhood. She’s nine now. I’m a mother of eight kids, so the library was always fun and interactive way of me teaching them not only about life and culture. 

Michael Twomey What do I miss about the library in the before time? In the long ago? The idea of going through the stacks, and just, more often than not I’d come here, and like, oh hey, I heard about this book and I want to check it out. And then I would go where it is, and there’d be three or four others on the stack that also looked interesting, jumped out at me.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That was Ivonne Casallas and Michael Twomey on their way to drop off books and pick up new books at Bay Ridge Library.

Adwoa Adusei For those of us staff who are going back to branches, we can see just how much we matter to the public because even though it’s limited lobby service, the sheer amount of books coming in and out can be overwhelming at times. And we are getting questions about what the library will look like in a few months, in a few weeks, in a few hours …

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And the truth is, we have no idea. We are wondering along with all of you what our public spaces, the places we used to gather and learn and talk in close quarters — what are they going to look like? We asked that question of Eric Klinenberg, when we interviewed him a few weeks ago. Eric is a social science professor and director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU. He is the author of several books. most recently: Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life. And, we asked him if the pandemic has changed the way he thinks about public libraries…

Eric Klinenberg I don't know if they've, if the pandemic has changed the way that I think about them. It's just, it makes me all the more convinced that we need gathering places and we need places that are public and accessible and democratic and …. when we walk into a library, we feel the sense that like, oh, we're citizens of a place that invests in us and offers us these resources. I feel like we need that more than ever. The thing I keep thinking about during the pandemic is that if we're going to try to build back and, you know, invest in infrastructure and create some better way of living after this is over, we can't just build back, you know, airports and highways and tunnels like we used to have them. We need to kind of think about a new way of organizing ourselves and I don't see how we do it without libraries featuring more prominently than ever.

Adwoa Adusei Today on Borrowed, we’re going to dig into the challenges of reopening our libraries, starting with a call to reimagine what we use our buildings for.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And we're going to talk to the LA county library system about additional challenges their community is facing as they reopen their libraries. We're going to get into all of it, on Borrowed. I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras. 

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to stories that start at the library.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I want to return to the conversation we had with Eric Klinenberg a few weeks ago. We talked about a lot of things, and honestly a lot of it is a call to action — we’re hoping that libraries can be even more vital and even more democratic during this moment of crisis, and Eric had a lot of ideas about that.

Adwoa Adusei We started by reading a passage from the first chapter of Palaces for the People that described a scene at our very own New Lots Library in East New York, Brooklyn. Eric visited one of our popular programs for seniors: Library Lanes, which brought older adults together to play Wii bowling at the library.

A Library Lanes program at Central Library in 2014.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Eric Klinenberg And it's an amazing thing, Library Lanes, because they get these groups of seniors who have every reason to be home and alone and to feel isolated or lonely, and who are in that situation right now because of the pandemic. And basically, every week during ordinary times, the seniors all over Brooklyn can go to their branch library on a morning and they compete against other branches through an Xbox. And it's this awesome social collective experience, which is like physical and competitive and connected, like, just people are with each other and this amazing way. And, you know, when I went, I got these photographs and some are in the book, but not a lot of them, but you just can see the smiles on the faces of the participants. And it's the smile that you get when you are happy with other people. You know, it was a very specific kind of expression. And I just, it's painful to think about all the people who can't have that experience right now, because we're basically all locked up in our homes.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In the book, which of course "palaces for the people," it is a reference to Andrew Carnegie who called them that, who referred to public libraries as "palaces for the people." But, you know, your book is, is about social infrastructure in general, which you're defining as the physical spaces and organizations that have an impact on how we interact. And this has been really, you know, anxiety-inducing for us as a library because those physical spaces have been closed for so long. And even as we tentatively take these reopening steps, you know, there's this huge anxiety about gathering, which ... gathering used to be an unalloyed good, and now it's really mitigated. So how do you see that new social infrastructure emerging, maybe bigger than libraries? Like, where do you see a little bit of cause for hope, if at all, after this or during this?

Eric Klinenberg Well, I mean, first of all, I guess, let's acknowledge that we're in this real turning point in history. In November we're either going to have an opportunity to kind of, a once in a lifetime opportunity, to have something like a Green New Deal, right? Like a new investment in ourselves and in the systems that we rely on to, you know, operate in a democratic society for the 21st century. Or we're going to be, I hate to say it, you know, in a totally new dark age and much bleaker than the one we're in right now. We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to hit a hard reset, and that involves, you know, changing our approach to the pandemic, but also involves changing our approach to climate change and to urban planning and to social infrastructure. 

I can't stop thinking about how, especially in the void created by the, or the crisis created by the postal system, like, how can libraries and including branch libraries get supercharged to help people vote? And can libraries be places where you can do absentee voting and your file ballot? I mean, libraries are already registering people to vote. They are doing the census. In many cities, you can actually vote at the library. But, this is my new thing is, like, sounding the alarm and trying to rally mu library superhero friends to get libraries totally engaged on this right now, like in the next week. Like, what can we do to get libraries, to be places where people can go and file absentee ballots? I mean, my God, it's such a non partisan issue, right? Voting. We're basically talking about how libraries can be used to promote democracy and civic engagement even more than they have been. And I don't see how we can miss this opportunity. But it means, you know, like the national library leadership and local library leadership getting really invested at this very moment and, you know, libraries aren't used to operating on this kind of issue in this way. But I don't see how they can not.

Adwoa Adusei That's true. I mean, you're helping us sort of fill the void in terms of identity, crisis. right? We are a place of social gatherings, but we can't really socially gather physically. So that's an idea that I think, yeah, we should be repeating and calling to action as often as we can.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras. Yeah, sounding the alarm. 

Adwoa Adusei So, Eric, you're working on a new book about COVID-19. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Eric Klinenberg Well, it's early days, you know, but it's tentatively called 2020. And it's about ... 'cause, right, at the end of this year, all we're going to want to do is go back to 2020 and remember these good times. No, I mean, I guess I'm writing it because I think this is the most consequential year of our lives. I've never lived through any moment like this, where it just feels like everything is up for grabs and everything is on the line. And, as of this moment, you know, late August, almost September, 2020, I have no idea where we're going to wind up. I mean, I just, I don't know. And the book is kind of full of social research about the pandemic in the way that it's played out in different places for different groups. And, you know, New York City has been the epicenter of this global crisis. And I think it's really important for us to, you know, find a way to register and record our experiences.

And so, can I just say, while you still got me, if anybody's listening and doesn't know about the Brooklyn Public Library's or Queens Public Library's really exciting efforts to generate an oral history archive, please go to the website and volunteer and either give your own story, provide your own story or help do interviews that can help us build an archive so we can make sense of this moment because it's a very consequential thing we're going through. And, this is one of the great things that libraries can do is help us, you know, figure out who we are and what we've been through.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Well, I look forward to reading about it when 2020 is not as painfully happening to all of us.

Adwoa Adusei Thank you so much, Eric.

Eric Klinenberg Oh my God, we're done.


Eric Klinenberg Do you feel depressed? Do you feel uplifted?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I feel more uplifted than depressed, so it's a gain. It's a net gain,

Eric Klinenberg Even though we hit some dark themes today ...

Adwoa Adusei You got to start low and then you get, you go high.


Krissa Corbett Cavouras That oral history project that Eric mentioned is our Brooklyn COVID-19 Stories project, which is part of our ongoing local oral history archive, Our Streets, Our Stories, a project that was started in 2013. We’re looking for Brooklynites across the spectrum of experience — from caregivers to teenagers, older adults and teachers. If you have got a story to share about your experience with COVID-19, or you know someone whose story should be represented in the archive, email ososproject [at] bklynlibrary [dot] org. 

Adwoa Adusei We’ll put links on our show notes page so you can read more information about the project and visit our interactive map of Brooklyn where you can listen to the stories that we’ve already collected. That’ll be at BKLYN Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

[**Ad break** If you are looking for another podcast to try out we would like to recommend Writ Large, it is a great podcast about how books change the world. Obviously, as a librayr, we think that's true. In every episode, host Zachary Davis talks with leading scholars about one book that shaped the world we live in—whether you’ve heard of it or not. These conversations look beyond plot summaries and tell the stories behind the story. Subscribe now wherever you listen to podcasts, or download the Lyceum podcast app to hear exclusive bonus episodes. That’s LYC, EUM.] 

People line up in Central Library to vote during the 2018 midterm election.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei So we just heard an interview with Eric Klinenberg about some big ideas — about how libraries can come back from this crisis bigger and better than before — and we wanted to check in with another library system to see how they are handling the reopening process.

Skye Patrick These are some of the most professionally challenging times, I think, that any of us have had to live through, frankly.

Adwoa Adusei That’s Skye Patrick, the director of the LA County Library.

Skye Patrick So we're dealing obviously, you know, with the pandemic. We have here in California, we have fires. On the East Coast, they have hurricanes, and a few tornadoes in the Midwest and the Tennessee area. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras On top of a pandemic, many areas of the country are also dealing with severe weather. Much of California, Washington state and Oregon are dealing with active fires that are threatening homes and businesses up and down the West Coast. Several LA County library branches have had close again because of the fires.

Adwoa Adusei The LA County Library has not yet opened to the public for things like book browsing, though they do have sidewalk service, much like BPL, where you can pick up and drop off holds. But they did have to open their doors again for another emergency situation.

Skye Patrick We get intense amounts of heat and the libraries have opened in the last seven months on several occasions as cooling centers. Last weekend, it was up to 111  degrees. If you can imagine. And so obviously, this is a big public health issue in addition to the fires, in addition to the pandemic. So with that, we've had to partition off our community rooms, keep the doors locked so that we can support people during these harsh weather times.

Adwoa Adusei LA County Library staff have been working in other institutions as well while their doors are closed.

Skye Patrick We have almost 250 staff serving as contact tracers. We have roughly 40 answering small business calls. We have people passing out food with the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. And we have some of our staff in hospitals actually serving as child care providers for the frontline staff.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, you know, this isn’t necessarily what anyone expected their jobs would be, as library workers — but now they’re everyday heroes on the frontlines of so many different challenges; so our hearts go out to our colleagues on the West Coast right now.

Adwoa Adusei We asked Skye another question, the same one we posed to Eric: will libraries change after this crisis is over? 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Like Eric, Skye knows that in order for us to rebuild and reopen our society, libraries are going to play a bigger role than ever before. If anything, our many crises of 2020 have revealed more starkly the inequities that have always existed in our communities.

Skye Patrick I think what this time has shown people … this concept of the digital divide. We've moved so many of our services online. But the truth still remains that our buildings are important. The after school care, the elderly, many of the elderly have no community outside of the library. I mean, there are ways in which I think we can still help. And once we open, I think it will become very clear that the library will thrive again in our buildings.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In the meantime, until we can fully reopen, LA County library and Brooklyn Public Library are both doing what we can to close the digital divide — that huge gap between people who have access to computers and internet and those who don't. 

Adwoa Adusei LA County just added 700 hot spots to their materials to be checked out. And at BPL we have about 300 hotspots out on loan to families since last year, who need internet to connect to school or work. We know that while our branches were shut, people logged onto our wifi 185,000 times from April through August.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This road back to reopening, it's going to have its ups and downs, but one we know is that we will be changing right along with the times

Skye Patrick At this point, we're all still trying to figure out what the next step is. And the primary goal is to keep our customers and our staff safe, to keep people at home to the degree that they can stay home and then try to to support parents. I'm a parent. I'm at home today. This is hard. It's complicated. There's just literally nothing like it. And so the library's doing its best to fill the gaps where they where we can.

Adwoa Adusei But before we can do that, before we can fill all the gaps, be the virtual bowling alleys of 2019, as Eric suggested, or help with voting … we have to make sure we’re safe for people to come into our doors.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Safety and health is something that our staff are about, for themselves, for their colleagues, but also for our patrons. Here’s Juana again, who talked about being inundated with books those first few days when Kings Highway Library reopened.

Juana Flores I was full of anxiety. Imagine being at home for three months. Um, the COVID-19 … I was concerned about it attaching to surfaces and books. So the patrons can see the amounts of books that we have to contend with, but they don't know the other back, the back background. They didn't know we had to quarantine it. 

Adwoa Adusei So, what Juana’s talking about, that’s a safety precaution we’re taking at all our branches, across Brooklyn and New York City. When you bring your books back to us, the books go into quarantine. Here’s how Dennis described it.

Dennis Stewart So once people return the books, they will be in the bin and once to bin is filled, we'll take it to the quarantine area. And soon as we put it in a quarantine area, we'll take a sign, and put it on there the time that they were returned and the date. And then after four days, 96 hours, we will check them in.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So that’s why your books might take longer than they used to, to get to you. And on top of the extra time that books are taking to be checked in, BPL has moved to a new schedule for staff so that only half the staff are in the branch at any given time. Staff are split up into A and B teams so that we have a lower density of people in the branch at any time, which helps us with distancing. 

Adwoa Adusei These extra precautions sometimes affect what we can offer to you. We’re taking care of our staff, and taking care of you so that might mean the branch has to delay their opening or sometimes close early. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras In order to follow the most recent scientific protocols, we consulted a research project that was specifically started to investigate how museums and libraries can safely reopen.

Nate Hill I'm Nate Hill, the executive director of the Metropolitan New York Library Council.

Adwoa Adusei Nate is the coordinator for the operations working group within REALM — which stands for REopening Archives, Libraries and Museums.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras The REALM project is testing the lifespan on a virus on actual slices of library books.

Nate Hill Some of the materials have been donated from libraries that we know because you want to have not like a crisp, clean book, but you want like a book that actually is similar to what's going on in the real world, right. That has been, you know, people have grabbed it and re-shelved and such.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Based on the findings of the REALM project, BPL decided 96 hours is a safe amount of time to leave books in their bins, in quarantine, before checking them in and getting them out to the next patron.

Adwoa Adusei And one consolation perhaps — is this isn’t the first time in American history that we’ve had to figure out how to handle library books during a health crisis.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Yeah that’s right. According to research librarians in Carthage, IL, libraries closed for weeks or even months between 1910 and 1919, first for scarlet fever and then for the influenza epidemic. 

Nate Hill I believe that I read that some books were even burned, which is pretty dramatic.

Adwoa Adusei At least we aren’t burning your library books. We’re just having them hang out in bins for a little while. …


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Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, it wouldn’t be a Borrowed episode without a BookMatch segment! Our producer talked with Maria McGrath, who put together a list of book recommendations to help you get through these uncertain times.

Maria McGrath So the first book I wanted to talk about is The Sweet Spot, and it’s a lot about balance. The woman who wrote it is Dr. Christine Carter and she’s a sociologist and senior fellow at UC Berkeley. The reason I like The Sweet Spot is that it stresses the idea that if you go too far in any one direction, you become very inefficient. If you pull an all nighter for example, or if you’re at your desk trying hard to come up with ideas or solutions, you really need time away. You need to give your brain a chance to turn things over. You need to give yourself and your brain some time to relax.

Virginia Marshall That sounds great. and what’s the next book you want to tell us about?

Maria McGrath So, veering into school and how to help your kids put habits into place, Ana Homayoun, she has two different books. One is That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week and that is mostly aimed at boys and especially disorganized boys, so I jumped on that. And then, there’s the counterpart, The Myth of the Perfect Girl, which is more about high-achieving girls and the pitfalls they can fall into. And because she, her background is executive functioning coaching, she drills really deeply down into, get a binder for each class. That’s not necessarily the most helpful part of the book. What is, is she describes the different ways that students can lose their way, that they can see themselves and how to sort of break free of that and find success in an easy way.

Virginia Marshall Well thank you so much Maria. I can’t wait to check out a few of these. And listeners can find The Sweet Spot by Chrisine Carter as well as Ana Homayoun’s books at Brooklyn Public Library. And we have all of those on a BookMatch list, including more titles for you to check out. Thank you so much, Maria.

Maria McGrath Thank you, Virginia.

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced by Virginia Marshall and written by Virginia Marshall and Adwoa Adusei, with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed will be back in a few weeks. In the meantime, we promise to not burn your books.