Photos and story by Grant Segall
Mark Glass was standing in line downtown with a few other people before 10 a.m. Monday, when the Cleveland Public Library reopened its doors after the longest hiatus in its 151 years.
Glass used to visit Main Library almost daily before March 13th, when the pandemic closed Main and branches in 27 neighborhoods plus City Hall. The buildings reopened Monday with slightly shorter hours, and he gladly resumed his routine.
“I’m retired. My computer went with my job,” he said. What’s more, “I’ve exhausted my personal library. I don’t want to reread my books.”
John Skrtic, director of the library’s public services, said he’d gotten calls, emails and social media messages every day from friends and strangers urging him to reopen. “People are really hungry for it.”
They’re hungry not just for the library’s 10.5 million titles, which range from popular to unique. Libraries are becoming less about titles these days and more about equipment and services, such as computers, internet, programs, education, social aid, food programs and safe spaces for youths and homeless people.
While the buildings were closed, the library added many free outdoor or remote services. It started curbside pickups, created an Ask CPL online reference service, moved programs and services on line, and replaced after-school snacks with “grab and go” youth lunches, courtesy of the Cleveland Food Bank.
All those additions continue, and several new programs for children will begin next month on different dates with different partner agencies.
The children will range from infants to high schoolers. The subjects will range from kindergarten readiness to literacy to violins to robotics, emphasizing social and emotional growth. Participants will get equipment for home use. The library will also open a Dial-a-Story line. Details should appear soon at cpl.org/eventsclasses.
Over time, the library hopes to keep expanding remote programs. For instance, it is looking to offer guidance in seeking and keeping jobs.
New hours, new restrictions
As before the pandemic, each building is opening at 10 a.m. Monday through Saturday. But each used to stay open twice a week until 7 p.m. Now each will be closed at 6 p.m. Staffers are encouraging patrons with compromised immune systems to come during the day’s first hour.
For now, each visit is limited to an hour and fifteen minutes, and visitors are given time slips at the door. But Skrtic expects to allow longer visits soon. Meanwhile, he promises to be flexible with the many youths who take shelter at the buildings until parents come home or pick them up.
“We want to make sure the kids are safe,” he said. “There’s not a lot in these neighborhoods for kids besides CPL and the rec centers. Most places don’t welcome kids. We want them to come.”
The library also welcomes homeless people like Michael Harris, who visited Main promptly at 10 a.m. Monday. “When you live in a shelter, it gives you a place to isolate,” said Harris.
Skrtic said that a common address on library cards is 2100 Lakeside, the Men’s Shelter of Lutheran Metropolitan Ministries. Before the shutdown, the library had a couple programs specifically for the shelter’s occupants.
Researchers from around the world have visited Main for its rare holdings, including top collections about baseball, dogs and tobacco, plus the world’s only complete records of modern chess tournaments. One of Monday’s first visitors came for rich materials about Russian politics.
Locals also love Cleveland’s open shelves, the oldest at any big U.S. library. At South Brooklyn on Monday, Heather Raeburn said she’d picked up books during the closing but missed browsing them in person.
Library as link
The pandemic shutdown has especially hurt the many Clevelanders without computers or internet. According to the U.S. Census and the nonprofit DigitalC, Cleveland is the fourth worst connected big city, with 27.4 percent of homes lacking broadband subscriptions for computers or even cellphones. According to a survey, as many as two-thirds of the school district’s students lack sufficient devices and access for homework.
Most patrons interviewed Monday at library buildings said they came for computers or internet. One took a virtual class. Another stood outside to pick up data on his phone.
During the shutdown, patrons scrounged for connections. “I was mooching off friends,” said John Mize.
Last year, patrons logged 674,495 times into the library’s roughly 1,000 general-purpose computers for 603,487 hours. Since 2018, the library has also been lending some 900 mobile hotspots.
During the shutdown, the buildings boosted their wireless signals for use outside, and Skrtic hopes to boost them further.
“The library is helping to conquer the digital divide,” he said, “recognizing the value of providing fair and equal access to technology for everyone regardless of social or economic class, supplying information, hardware and software for them to meet their goals.”
Visitors seemed fewer than normal Monday at Main and a couple of branches. Skrtic said it was to soon to tell if fears of Covid-19 were keeping people away. Regardless, he expects visitors to grow as word spreads. The library drew 2.4 million visitors in 2019, its sesquicentennial.
Most other local libraries have already reopened, and traffic has been slow at the Cuyahoga County Public Library. Since reopening July 6, its buildings have drawn 225,000 visits, about a third of normal.
Skrtic said Cleveland reopened later than its neighbors, mindful that many patrons belong to especially vulnerable groups, such as minorities and the elderly.
Cleveland’s staff has increased sanitization, installed plexiglass above service counters and provided disposable masks. It has also spread the computers further apart and limited each visitor’s use to an hour. Visitors may reserve time ahead.
The staff is providing alcohol wipes for visitors to clean the computers and stations afterwards. Then custodians are wiping up again.
As in recent weeks, patrons may order materials by phone or on line, pick them up outdoors, and return them outdoors. The pickups may include 10 free printed pages. Staffers quarantine the returns for 96 hours.
The Public Administration Library in City Hall remains closed. Main’s Eastman Reading Garden’s has been open meanwhile.
Meanwhile, the library has continued to deliver materials locally to homebound patrons and statewide to patrons of its Ohio Library for the Blind and Physically Disabled.
Like other public officials, library leaders expect to lose revenue because of the economy’s pandemic plunge. They expect to lose $5.2 million in revenue this year, mainly in property taxes and state aid.
Officials have cut $4.5 million from this year’s expenses by freezing hires, slowing down acquisitions and halving most workers’ hours. The workers got proportional unemployment benefits through SharedWork Ohio. Their hours were restored July 27.
The library has also applied for $700,000 from the Cares Act Coronavirus Relief Fund.
A changed future
Cleveland leaders plan to see how their reopening goes and make adjustments as necessary. See cpl.org for details and updates.
They don’t expect to see the old normal again. “COVID-19 will forever change the Library experience,” said. Felton Thomas Jr., the library’s executive director and CEO.
Skrtic added, “Now and in the future, we are thinking creatively about how to provide much needed services and spaces to our community in as safe a way as possible.”