Libraries reopen for browsing, move some operations outdoors

Crown Hts Library
The Brooklyn Public Library’s Crown Heights branch.
Photo by Ben Brachfeld

Brooklyn’s bibliophiles are rejoicing this week after the Brooklyn Public Library system partially reopened its doors to the public for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thirteen of the system’s 60 branches, including the newly-renovated Central Branch at Grand Army Plaza, reopened to the public on Monday, meaning visitors can once again browse the library’s collections, use its computers, and consult with librarians, in addition to the pick-up and drop-off services BPL has offered since last year.

The 13 branches open for “expanded services” include Brownsville, Canarsie, Central Branch, Clinton Hill, Coney Island, Crown Heights, Flatbush, Fort Hamilton, Greenpoint, Kings Highway, Midwood, Mill Basin, and Red Hook. Other branches are open for the more limited pick-ups and drop-offs, while some remain closed.

BPL spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer said that the library is hoping to have all its branches reopened by July, and that the branches initially chosen for expanded services were picked so as to cover a large swath of the borough.

The library is also launching new outdoor programming at select locations across the borough. That includes a new “laptop loan” initiative allowing guests to use the library’s laptops outside the buildings. The library will also bring some of its collections and services onto the street so guests can browse, read, and check out books, and access services like library card signup without going into a building.

BPL last year launched Bklyn Reach, which expands branches’ Wi-Fi signal up to 300 feet outside the branch building in any direction. 

“We were thinking all during the pandemic, if we can’t have people come into the library, or come in the way they’re used to it, we thought, how can we bring our services out,” Bodenheimer told Brooklyn Paper.

Library honchos haven’t officially decided whether the outdoor programming will be made permanent or if it will only be around for this summer. “But certainly as long as the weather is good, I think we can go for it,” Bodenheimer said.

The library has pivoted to outdoor and virtual programming since closing branches in March 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, like movie screenings and storytime. It’s also at times moved some operations outside the building, putting on pilot programs like outdoor tech support, and reading rooms last year at the Flatbush and Red Hook branches. Bodenheimer said that the library has hosted 9,000 online programs attended by over a million people during the pandemic.

Visitors will still have to wear masks and maintain six feet of social distance, and are being asked to limit their time inside branches to an hour “just to allow as many people as possible to access our resources,” Bodenheimer said.

Despite the reopening fanfare, it may take some time before people start showing back up at their local branches. The Crown Heights branch was nearly deserted on Wednesday afternoon, despite having reopened on Monday, except for staff.

The lone person browsing the shelves, Prospect-Lefferts Gardens resident Elena Forbes, was looking at children’s books for her toddler. “It feels good, it’s much better for knowing which book you want to get,” Forbes told Brooklyn Paper.

While she has visited the library regularly throughout the pandemic to pick up and return books, she has missed browsing the shelves, which she hasn’t been able to do since before the pandemic. She is worried, however, that the library will “probably charge for overdue fees again,” which are currently suspended until June 30.

Bodenheimer said that while she’s proud of the work BPL did during the pandemic, it was no match for the in-person services that are now returning.

“People are just so happy to be able to browse a book,” Bodenheimer said. “There’s something about the joy of just being able to browse on a shelf that just can’t be replicated online. It’s just great, we’re so happy to see our patrons.”