Recent comments by Mayor Emily Larson and Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, have given hope to library patrons that they may soon be able to once again browse the stacks that have been off limits to them since spring, when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged and prompted the library to shut down.
The library is currently operating with a staff of 23 people, with 25 library technicians still on furlough. The library has continued to lend materials through a curbside service launched in late April, but its doors have remained closed to the public.
In a budget presentation to the Duluth City Council on Thursday, Larson said the city is recalling many employees throughout the organization.
“We are in the process of bringing back nearly all of our remaining staff who were laid off and can now safely work," she said. "But I do want to be very clear, in a caveat, that unfortunately, it does not include all of our library staff, due to continuing health concerns related to the pandemic."
Larson went on to say: "Director Jim Filby Williams and Library Manager Carla Powers will be revisiting COVID safety and revisiting the status of the pandemic in October, where we might develop a different kind of plan to provide services. And it’s not easy for me to say that to you, but I do want to be really direct and let you know that we’re trying to be as thoughtful as we can about making sure that people are coming back safely.”
Schuchman said during the City Council meeting Monday that next year's budget allows for full library staffing.
"We are in the process of bringing back library staff to support current work and prepare for an eventual phased reopening," he said. "As the mayor mentioned, we are targeting early October for starting that phased reopening, pending public health implications, including COVID infection levels, and we will continue to re-evaluate that information over the coming weeks and beyond. We have been talking with other cities and jurisdictions about their varying approaches to libraries."
However, the city's public information officer, Kate Van Daele, told the News Tribune on Tuesday that no one from city administration was ready to talk any further about what a "phased reopening" might look like or when it might happen.
Duluth City Council President Gary Anderson said he senses that people are eager to return to public libraries, especially with winter approaching.
"People are wanting to make sure that there's going to be access to the library. From talking to both the mayor and Administrator Schuchman, though, I gather that they're looking at things, but we're not going to see anything like business as usual," he said. "The message that I'm taking in from the administration around the library is that the No. 1 issue with library access right now is not about funding, because we've actually sort of come through seemingly the hardest part of this year with our budget. But it's really about keeping our community safe and our city staff safe."