COVID-protective plexiglass barriers at a West Philly branch of the Free Library

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Free Library worker Shelley Rosen was worried about COVID safety in advance of more than 20 branch locations reopening for in-person service last week. On arrival at their West Philly branch, they found plexiglass barriers protecting workers at the main circulation desk — but none at the two reference desks.

So Rosen broke down some cardboard boxes, and built some barriers on their own.

The makeshift airflow guards looked a bit ridiculous, and when they posted photos to Twitter, it garnered a lot of attention. Within a week, library facilities staff had installed official plexiglass barriers — just in time for the branches to open their doors.

“I and other workers kept asking, ‘Can we get more plexiglass, so we can properly cover the desk,’” Rosen told Billy Penn, speaking as a rank and file union member. When they asked the branch manager Bruce Siebers about it, Rosen said, the initial response was “there’s no money for it.”

Rosen joined other library staff and union members to contact their representatives, which looked into the issue (Free Library workers are represented by District Councils 33 and 47). According to DC 47 union steward Michele Teague, an IT administrator at the Parkway Central branch, the delay stemmed from a vendor payment “issue” and inadequate inventory.

The quick fix exemplifies the fluid but fairly cooperative library pandemic reopening process that Rosen described as “as safe as we’re gonna get.”

Free Library Interim Director Leslie Walker said plexiglass was installed according to local public health guidelines.

“Additional panels have been put into place to accommodate staff requests as well — in this instance, just one business day after property management received the request,” said Walker, who took over after the previous library director resigned over claims of a culture of discrimination.

Alice Wells, president of the Friends of Walnut Street West Library, said in an email Siebers approached the friends group to ask if they could finance additional plexiglass.

“Of course the answer was yes,” Wells said, “but early the next morning he sent me an update that the Free Library of Philadelphia would take care of it.

“I guess all the squeaky wheels paid off.”

Other safety measures were added, according to Rosen, including a slot in the new barriers for patrons to safely exchange items. And there was an effort to reassign employees seeking to work closer to home to avoid public transit — one of the requests made by the Concerned Black Workers group last summer. Rosen was one of the staffers relocated to minimize risk.

Walker said the library chose to reopen, in part, because of public demand for computer and WiFi services.

“We have so many of our neighborhoods that children and adults don’t have the access to WiFi, they don’t have the access to printing services, they don’t have computers,” Walker said. “For us to be able to provide that for Philadelphians is really important.”

To accommodate health safety requirements, library patrons are asked to wear masks, social distance, limit computer use and limit the amount of time they’re in the library.

Unique safety situations at each branch

City residents depend on branch libraries for many valuable services, including internet access used for job searches and school work, so the lifting of city safety restrictions was widely anticipated.

The return to in-person operations at more than 20 of the 53 branches, which went into effect on Jan. 19, leaves the institution trying to balance the needs of the community with staff safety.

Library staff was made aware of the plans in early January. From there, leadership and facilities met with each branch’s staff and leadership to learn health safety needs. Every branch has a unique layout, and therefore requires a unique set of protections, staff and leadership said.

“At Parkway Central you have that big lobby area,” said Interim Director Walker. “If you’re at a neighborhood library, some of them, you’re walking directly in and you have our circulation area.”

Rosen’s West Philly branch is large. At first, the circulation desk for checking out and returning books was about halfway covered with plexiglass, they said, but two reference desks were left almost totally exposed.

The set-up persisted through the fall, said Rosen, who sometimes sits behind the desk. So when it came time to reopen this winter, they were determined to change the situation.

Change came after the workers sent images of their makeshift cardboard barriers to their union steward and safety officer, they said. “After [MLK Day weekend] when we came back to the branch, magically, there was plexiglass everywhere that there had been cardboard,” Rosen said.

DC 47 steward Teague said the union and safety committee had already confirmed no branch should be allowed to open without the proper PPE.

“It’s just a matter of coordination to get all the proper channels, so that the things that should happen do actually happen before those doors open,” she said.

Moving forward, staff are seeking additional COVID protections like N95 masks and an end to disparities in staff health protections: A large population of mostly Black workers including branch security guards, Teague said, don’t have the option to relocate.

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Layla A. Jones

Layla A. Jones (she/her) was a general assignment reporter for Billy Penn from 2019 to 2021. Her work has helped underserved community organizations, earned free repairs for property owners who sustained...