Reopening Libraries in New Zealand: Slow and Steady Wins The Race

This week our libraries here in Wellington, New Zealand began the process of reopening our spaces to the public. On Monday 11 May 2020, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that the country would be moving into Pandemic Alert Level 2, a move that would allow more public spaces and businesses to open back up to visitors. This move would take effect on Thursday 14 May 2020.

Our library had been planning what this eventual reopening would look like for the entire time that New Zealand was in Pandemic Alert Levels 3 & 4. There were many meetings and discussions around what reopening could look like and all angles and ideas were heard, considered, and then eventually decided upon. Over those 6 weeks many planning documents were prepared to help with the eventual reopening of our sites. While I can’t go into the exact details of what went into reopening our sites in this post (it would take a book to cover all of that!), my goal with this post is to share some overall ideas to help guide public libraries as they think about or begin reopening to the public. If you would like to continue this discussion or seek more detail, I am more than happy to have a chat over email at justinthelibrarian at gmail dot com.

Our staff returned to our physical spaces on Tuesday 12 May 2020 to prepare our library space for public use. In no particular order, here are the things that were done during the next two days to get the space ready:

  • Move all furniture to a storage location: it was decided that furniture would be removed so that library guests could browse, find the material they want, and leave the library in a timely way so that we did not have large queues waiting to get into the library.
  • Work on checking in returned items: there were a number of items that were returned before the lockdown that needed checked in. These items were checked in and then reshelved.
  • Establishing an entrance/exit for the library: customers visiting the library would be required to give their contact information (more on that below in “contract tracing”) to enter and then have to exit the library from another area. Staff were in charge of setting up these areas and how they were presented to the public.
  • Create hand sanitising stations: throughout the library a number of hand sanitising stations were set up to encourage library customers to practice good hygiene.
  • Hang up posters and information about social distancing and library rules during Covid-19: these are weird times, so with that comes the need to have a good and consistent message that is clearly communicated to our library customers. Staff hung up relevant signage to help our library customers navigate this new Covid-19 library world.
  • Rostering staff for reopening: I felt that it was very important for our staff to have a clear idea of where they should be and the work needed to be done once we reopened to the public. To do this, staff contributed to creating hourly rosters of work that they would need to do once our spaces were reopened.
  • Connection: 6 weeks away from your coworkers is a long time to be away from everyone. In the two days we were preparing our spaces we encouraged everyone to chat with each other, laugh, communicate, and connect. When we talk and share experiences with each other we grow and build our teams. Personally, I felt like this was some of the most important work for us to do.

Now to the big picture of things. In those 6 weeks of lockdown a lot of discussions where had to see what reopening looked like. We knew as a whole that we couldn’t just jump right back into things as they once were because there was a lot of work needed to be done with resetting our spaces, managing customers entering the space, managing returns, and more. Here is a brief overview the things that were talked about and eventually decided upon:

REDUCED HOURS: in going with the limited number of sites opening at the start thing mentioned above, we felt like it would be good to adjust our open hours to begin. For our sites that opened up at the start this meant Monday-Friday 10am-6pm and Saturday 10am-4pm. We believe that this gave our customers a good amount of time to visit our spaces while at the same time recognizing the need to take care of our staffing limits and demands.

OPENING A LIMITED NUMBER OF SITES: we decided to focus our efforts on some of our larger sites across our city to start and then build up from there after a week. We made sure that the largest libraries in each of the regions in our city were opened to start and that after one week we’d re-evaluate and move forward as needed.

CONTACT TRACING: all library customers entering our spaces would be required to give their name and contact information. To do this library staff would use a spreadsheet to log these details. Wellington City Council also partnered with a local startup to provide access to a contact tracing app called Rippl that could be used by library customers.

CUSTOMER LIMITS: our libraries team looked at our spaces understand how many people could be present in those spaces with social distancing in place. Each site was discussed and eventually a decision was made about the maximum number of people that could be present in a library space at one time. Each site was different, and library staff was made aware of this number.

SECURITY GUARDS: every site would have access to 1-2 security guards to help manage customer entrance into our spaces and to help keep the number of library customers in the space below the maximum the spaces could hold.

SOCIAL DISTANCING: all library customers and staff would be required to keep 2 metres apart (6.5 feet).

GOOD HYGIENE: information about proper hand washing was hung up around the library. Hand sanitizing stations were placed at entrances and exits.

BE KIND TO EVERYONE: everyone is a lot more anxious than usual these days and with good reason. I believe that approaching every situation with kindness and patience would be


This brings to me to my overall approach with reopening libraries. I had a strong feeling that with this planning that we should over prepare to start. I wanted to make sure that we had more than enough staffing available to do all the work that was needed. I wanted to make sure that our staff felt comfortable reentering the library world after being away for so long and also comfortable in entering a library world that was still dealing with Covid-19.

To me the guiding wisdom of “The Tortoise and The Hare” story came up time and time again in my thoughts: SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE. This approach was working for New Zealand as a country, as it took its time to work through Pandemic alert levels 3 & 4. Patience as an overall guiding force combined with a pace that did not rush things back to what they once were was the approach which I felt would be best in going back to work for both our staff and our library customers.

As I let this approach settle in me, I found it important to read up on this mindset and I found this particularly good quote that helped me understand why this was a good path:

When you’re consistent, that creates momentum. That momentum creates progress. The progress creates self-confidence. The self-confidence starts shaping a new, more resourceful and empowering identity. And with this new identity comes the ability to create lasting change in your life.

Via Patrik Edblad at

In taking the slow and steady approach, we are not just making sure that we are good in our present time but also ensuring that what we’re doing right now will have lasting positive effects. We don’t want to push too hard in the moment, as it would just create an unpleasant experience in our present time which would have long lasting effects on the overall team in the future.

For now, I’ll end this post and reiterate what I said above: While I can’t go into the exact details of what went into reopening our sites in this post (it would take a book to cover all of that!), my goal here is to share some overall ideas to help guide public libraries as they think about or begin reopening to the public.

If you would like to continue this discussion or seek more detail, I am more than happy to have a chat over email at justinthelibrarian at gmail dot com.

Be safe, be well, and please look out for each other.


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