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St. Louis Libraries Plan A New Normal, Slow Reopening

Barr branch library
File photo | Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Mere months ago, the two largest library systems in the St. Louis region kicked off the year 2020 with a major announcement: that their libraries, moving forward, were officially fine-free.

“We’re not about fines,” St. Louis Public Library’s CEO Waller McGuire said at the time. “We’re not about rules. We’re about helping people learn. Helping people enjoy themselves. Helping people gain access to information, which is vital to their lives.”

Weeks later, the change proved to be an unusually prescient one. As both the city and county library facilities closed their doors indefinitely amid the COVID-19 shutdown, both systems were quick to assure patrons that they needn’t worry about returning overdue items during the crisis.

“Due dates on materials will be extended during the closure,” the St. Louis County Library’s website noted. “Patrons are asked to keep materials at home until the library reopens. Book drops will not be available during the closure. When the library reopens, you will be given plenty of time to return your materials.”

Waller McGuire and Kristen Sorth
Credit File photo | Lara Hamdan | St. Louis Public Radio
Waller McGuire, at left,and Kristen Sorth joined Thursday's talk show.

Now, both library systems are beginning to sketch out cautious reopening plans. The city library system will reopen its book drops on June 1, and five of its branches will be open with limited hours and small browsable collections starting June 10. The county library system earlier this week began publicly outlining its plans, including opening up book drops May 26 and curbside service starting June 3.

During the weeks of being closed to the public, many library staffers remained busy, from providing reading recommendations for a pandemic to supplying more physical sustenance. The county libraries alone have distributed more than 112,000 diapers, 150,000 meals and 28,000 feminine hygiene kits — along with 3,600 books.

On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Sarah Fenske talked about the wideranging roles that libraries have been playing lately — and what their immediate future holds — with Kristen Sorth, director of SLCL, and with SLPL’s McGuire.

The talk show team also heard from members of the public, who raved about the resources local libraries have continued to provide in highly unusual times.

Happy recipient of PBS Playtime Pad
Credit Kara Hayes Smith | St. Louis County Library
St. Louis County Library distributed a total of 221 PBS Playtime Pads to help families in the Ritenour and Hancock Place school districts keep young students learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hoopla and Libby ebooks have saved our family during this COVID-19 time,” St. Louis resident Lauren Obermark wrote in the St. Louis on the Air Facebook group. “We’ve been able to keep reading new material with our kids while staying safe. We also love to share these books with grandparents and cousins on Zoom. We are SO grateful for the great digital resources SLPL provides.”

Nancy Willard in Crestwood left St. Louis Public Radio a voicemail commending the SLCL system on “how much help they’ve provided during [the] shutdown.”

“My husband and I are both avid readers, and we’ve enjoyed the quick availability of ebooks since the library’s been closed. In fact today I got notified of an ebook available to download, and today’s the publication date for the book, so it’s very quick. I also am receiving a lot of communication about their virtual programs that were originally in person — author talks and other services — and now they’re available virtually. So they’re helping us pass the time a lot.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie was a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.