After more than three years of renovations, Durham Main Library was slated to reopen in April.
But the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in those plans, and now a library official says it’s still uncertain when the library will be open to the public again.
Library director Tammy Baggett said construction is complete. However, not all of the library’s technology was connected before the malware attack in March affected Durham city and county operations just as COVID-19 spread in the U.S. The library still needs to set up computers and other equipment in accordance with social distancing guidelines, she added.
This renovation has been years in the making, and many people are anxiously awaiting for the doors to open. Though she does not directly work on any library boards, Durham Board of County Commissioners Chair Wendy Jacobs said it is vital the library reopens by the time schools start up virtually in August and resume in-person classes in October.
“The libraries are going to be very important resources for our families, for students and families to study and work,” she said. “The Main Library, all the libraries, will be a very big part of prioritizing our kids and education.”
Baggett wouldn’t release any specific details about reopening plans, but said she is eager for it to happen — with social distancing rules in place, of course.
“Once we get to a point of opening, it will be with what is always done,” Baggett said. “Anyone is allowed in the library. We are the great equalizer. Everyone is always available through our doors.”
Libraries are hubs for the Durham community. They bring in thousands of people every day, including those seeking books, internet access and shelter.
According to the library system website, 15% of Durham households do not have access to the internet and under 40% have access to a broadband connection. Just over a quarter of library computer users have searched for, applied for or secured a job using library resources.
Durham libraries are also some of the few places in the city that offer programs and resources to community members free of charge. For those experiencing homelessness, libraries can be a place of refuge during extreme weather events or during the day when they need bathrooms or computers.
According to Durham County’s website, the original building was too small to accommodate the city’s growing population and technological needs. In November 2016, a bond referendum passed to fund a major expansion and renovation of the 40-year old library, and it closed two months later. The renovated building — which cost the city $44 million — is nearly 20,000 square feet larger.
Baggett said work is still ongoing throughout the county’s libraries to get them ready for visitors. County libraries are closed to the public except for book pick-ups, but offer many free online services like virtual story readings, book clubs, and games over Zoom.
For now, employees are answering patron questions through an online service called LibChat and members can check out items like books and DVDs without going inside.
Durham Main Library is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for book drop-offs Monday through Friday. Baggett said all books are placed into 72-hour quarantine when returned and then individually cleaned.
“We are just making sure when we do open, the environment is as safe as possible, for community and staff,” Baggett said. “Safety is priority one.”
9th Street Journal Reporter Veronica Niamba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Top photo: Durham library signs during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Henry Haggart.