Trustees listen to Guilderland library staff concerns and delay public browsing

— Photo from Luanne Nicholson

A temporary wall separates the construction zone from part of the accessible collection at the Guilderland Public Library, significantly limiting usable interior space.

GUILDERLAND — The trustees for the Guilderland Public Library have delayed public browsing of the library’s collection until at least mid-January after hearing complaints from library staff. The trustees also agreed to discuss furloughs for library staff in December.

The staff raised many concerns about safety as public-health restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus collide with the library’s construction work for a $9 million expansion and improvement project.

Luanne Nicholson, the library’s public information officer, read seven pages of comments from library staff — most of them anonymous — at the start of the trustees’ Nov. 19 meeting, which was held as a videoconference and lasted for over three hours.

Reporting on the $8,787,803 construction budget, Meghan Brennan said, “We are on schedule, looking to be ahead of schedule on some phases.”


Staff concerns

Among the staff concerns were that the set-up of shelves was unsafe; that lunch breaks can no longer be taken in cars in cold weather and the break room doesn’t allow space for social distancing; that the air-filtration system may not be up to safety standards with demolition going on; that communication is poor throughout the building and it feels as if information is being withheld; that some emergency exits are closed and one leads to a drop of 10 to 15 feet; and that space is reduced to a third of the library’s normal size so it wouldn’t allow for social distancing of staff and patrons.

The library’s original plan had called for public browsing to begin on Dec. 1. Guilderland’s library, like all of those across the state, was closed by executive order in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The library continued its services with remote programs, as staff worked largely from home, and for months has provided curbside pick-up of materials.

In August, when Director Timothy Wiles proposed keeping the building closed to the public while construction was going on, the trustees unanimously agreed that the building should be open in the midst of construction as residents had been promised when they voted to approve the project in May 2019.

If all goes well, both with the weather and the health of workers in the midst of the pandemic, construction is expected to take 11 months. So, Wiles told The Enterprise earlier, with construction beginning in October, the project should be completed by fall of 2021.

Wiles had told the board in August that he faced two main challenges: reopening safely and getting the new building built. It occurred to him it might save time and money if the library continued with its curbside pickup and perhaps opened a meeting room for patrons to use as a library while construction work went on elsewhere in the building.

“I’m fine either way,” Wiles told the board in August. “I’m not involved in this in an ego sense.”

The board’s secretary, Cathy Barber, raised the idea in August that voters decide on a library budget every spring and may not be supportive if the building has been closed through then.

This past June, the library’s $4 million budget passed with 64 percent of the vote.

“There’s no guarantee we’d save money and we might not save time,” said Trustee Peter Hubbard in August, adding, “We pledged to the residents of Guilderland we’d be open.”

At the November meeting, anonymous staff comments said keeping the library open increased health risks. “Our lives depend on it,” said one, urging a delay in reopening the building.

Another said that the staff works really hard. “Sometimes it sounds like some of the board members feel like we’re slacking off when we’re home. We’re not. We’re working.”

Another staff member asked, “Which is more important — opening the physical library for a small number of patrons during an extremely unsafe time or remaining closed to the public, keeping staff safe while safely delivering our great services?”

Still another said, “COVID continues to force work-arounds for everything we do and is only exacerbated by construction.”

“We implore the board to exercise common sense and put health and safety first by delaying our reopening to the public on Dec. 1 … We simply cannot do it.”


Trustees’ views

“Clearly, there is a lot of concern from the librarians that they wanted the board to hear directly and not from Tim,” said the board’s president, Kaitlin Downey.

She also said of the library’s director, Wiles, “Tim takes his direction from us, not from them,” the library staff.

Trustee Barbara Fraterrigo questioned why library staff members were commenting anonymously. Ultimately, the board agreed to have its policy committee draft rules on public comment.

“A lot of those comments are very valid and are in the process of beginning to be addressed,” said Wiles. He also called it “a significant question whether we should even be doing public browsing at all.”

He noted that, in recent weeks, as the number of COVID-19 cases climbed, other libraries that had been open for browsing have seen patrons aren’t coming in.

“There’s more work to do before I can safely open the door for browsing in the library,” said Wiles.

He said that the library was using a hybrid approach with staffing. The two largest departments were using rotating teams while other departments had full staff participation.

Wiles also said the solution of having staff eat at their desks since cars are cold and the break room is too small is not an answer. “They don’t have desks,” he said.

Marcia Alazraki, one of the trustees who toured the library under construction, said, “I’d feel very uncomfortable to have the public in the library in its current condition.”

She also said, “We need to listen very carefully to the public comments of the staff.”

Trustee Richard Rubin, who said he was speaking as a physician, said it “would be a mistake” to open the library for browsing.

“It’s a matter of risk versus benefit,” he said, “and this is probably the highest risk time in terms of community transmission,” Rubin said of the virus.

Ultimately the trustees passed a motion to set Jan. 13, rather than Dec. 1, as a target to allow browsing in the library.

Trustee Bryan Best suggested polling the public on reopening. “We’d benefit hearing from the public, not just the employees,” he said.

“We just keep moving the goal post …,” said Trustee Jason Wright. “At some point, we’re not going to be open for a year … When are we going to say, we’re not going to open and we’re going to have the discussion of furloughs?”

“We could put that on the table at the December meeting,” said Downey.

Rubin suggested a written update from Wiles “in terms of operation and COVID with the current state and recommendations” before the next meeting, which Wiles termed “an excellent idea.”

Wright commented, “People haven’t had access to the library … A lot of people that I represent have a mindset that, ‘If I don’t have access to it, it’s not serving a purpose … What am I paying for?’”

Downey responded, “I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to say the library is not providing any services right now.”

“But it’s also not fair for taxpayers to be paying a full price” for “artificial … virtual things … not being able to see the collection or access certain things they would if it was open,” said Wright.

He went on, “I don’t mean to discredit anyone but I feel we should have been open a couple of months ago.”

Downey said, if furloughs are in the offing, it would be good to give library staff “a chance to figure out what they’re going to do over the winter.”

Fraterrigo recommended taking a preliminary look at the possibility of fourhoughs.

“As Jason pointed out, we’ve been paying staff for almost a year with very limited services …,” she said. “The services they have provided have been excellent but, on the other hand, it’s not like working a full eight-hour day and all that.”

The trustees voted to set up an open meeting, with the library’s lawyer, to learn about furloughs.


Librarians’ response

A letter to the Enterprise editor this week from department head Maria Buhl and librarian Ann Wemple-Person, both in Programs and Services at the Guilderland library, states that the trustees’ comments about “artificial … virtual things” and about “limited services” and discussion of furloughs in December was shocking and demoralizing for the staff.

“GPL staff is currently juggling two of the most difficult challenges a library could possibly face: a global pandemic with terrifying and rising numbers of infections at this writing; and a building-wide construction project that has upended the library,” they wrote. “Vast spaces are closed off for construction, nearly every single item on our shelves has been squeezed into a much smaller footprint. Staff have had desks literally removed while working at them.”

They note that “staff is not to be faulted for creating either of these immense challenges. And yet, despite what we’re up against, staff work tirelessly to provide every possible service to our library patrons.”

The letter goes on to describe all the many services provided at the Guilderland library in the midst of construction and the pandemic and states, “And there’s a certain irony to describing our programs as being ‘artificial’ when the board meeting is held virtually, with the trustees in the safety of their own homes.”

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