Las Cruces libraries place checked out books in bags for outdoor pickup by patrons. (Photo courtesy of Las Cruces Public Library)

When COVID-19 reached the Southwest last March, library systems faced multiple challenges.

The impact on Texas and New Mexico libraries has varied when it comes to budget cuts, furloughs and the level of services provided. The El Paso Public Library system has faced greater reductions in services than most other Texas big-city library systems.

The city of El Paso has been under scrutiny for how it has handled the reopening of library services and for furloughing the majority of its library staff.

El Paso Matters spoke with library directors and staff throughout the state and in neighboring Las Cruces to find out how services and library systems were impacted by the pandemic, and to compare their response with El Paso’s.

El Paso Public Library

Library Director Norma Martinez said El Paso has 12 libraries and about 157 employees. About 118 of those employees were furloughed.

Martinez was serving as interim director when the pandemic began and was appointed director in June.

She said when the library doors closed in March, programming went online and materials such as magazines and movies were made available electronically. Martinez said the GED high school diploma program, which was always offered online, continued. Employees who were able to work from home have continued to do that.

Curbside book pick up resumed in February at El Paso libraries. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Public Libraries)

“Even though we were closed to the public, we still maintained a lot of our operations online,” Martinez said.

Martinez said Wifi was boosted so that patrons could access the signal from the library parking lots and they were able to purchase an additional 625 hot spots with CARES ACT funding for the Mi-Fi, or Mobile Wi-Fi, hotspot program for library cardholders.

“It’s been a great program for the community to be able to connect from home,” Martinez said.

Unlike the other major Texas library systems which mostly began offering curbside service in June, El Paso did not begin offering curbside service until August.

Early discussions among city staff and the City Council focused on not being able to resume some library services due to budget shortfalls caused by the financial impact of the pandemic.

The quality of life department, which includes libraries, saw an 11% budget reduction of $7.1 million in June.

Curbside service was initially set to begin in June, but the city officials at the time said they delayed the start of the program because of a rise in COVID-19 cases. The service started in August at select locations, but was suspended in November after another spike in cases.

The curbside service resumed in February.

Asked why El Paso did not maintain curbside service during COVID-19 case spikes in the community when other library systems in the state kept the service in operation, Martinez said they initially wanted to get a sense for how the pandemic was going to impact the community.

“We were going through the numbers that we were getting and we were trying to keep our staff and the community safe. So we wanted people to actually stay home and not be transmitting this disease. So that was one of the reasons that nothing was done at the very beginning with them, within El Paso public (libraries),” Martinez said.

An El Paso library worker drops books in a waiting vehicle. (Photo courtesy of El Paso Public Libraries)

Tracey Jerome, deputy city manager of quality of life, said five library branches will begin offering in-person services starting in April: the Dorris Van Doren, Memorial Park, Richard Burges, Irving Schwartz and Judge Marquez locations. Curbside services will also be offered at more locations. The Chamizal and Enrique Moreno locations will open for in-person services April 17.

Jerome said three locations are being renovated: Clardy Fox, Esperanza Moreno and Jose Cisneros branches. Later this year, renovations to the Westside and Armijo branches will begin, she said.

Renovations have been completed at the Irving Schwartz, Richard Burgess Judge Marquez, Sergio Troncoso and Memorial Park locations.

“We do have to be vigilant, first and foremost, to make sure that we keep the community and our workforce safe, but we also have to do it in a fiscally responsible fashion,” Jerome said. “So to ask, which is more important? I mean, the human aspect of it is always going to take precedent, but that also means that we’re being — again — fiscally responsible with what we’re doing with taxpayer dollars.”

The city furloughed a total of 156 employees, many of which were library staff. After some library employees raised concerns to El Paso Matters in January that they had not been given updates from the city about what would happen at the end of the one-year period approaching, many received layoff notices a month later.

The move sparked swift community backlash. A day later the city rescinded several of the layoff notices. About 39 library employees were reinstated, at the time leaving about 30 employees on furlough.

City officials said there are no more employees on furlough status. City officials have not said whether all of the remaining employees were reappointed or whether there were more resignations after trying to place them in different positions within the city.

Austin Public Library

Roosevelt Weeks, Austin’s director of libraries, said the city’s library system has 20 locations and about 450 employees.

No employees were placed on a furlough despite the doors of the libraries closing at the beginning of March 2020, he said.

“We made sure everyone continued to have their jobs and employment. It’s been a true blessing to have our city leaders provide that support to us,” Weeks said.

Weeks said library staff who were able to work from home did so and those who could not work remotely were immediately given assignments with the city’s COVID-19 response.

Quite a few people are working at the Emergency Operations Center distributing masks, hand sanitizers and things of that nature, Weeks said. They also work at the convention center providing food support and whatever the city needs. Others are distributing food and working with the food bank.

“Those are the main things we did, or are doing, during the pandemic and will continue to do so until we get past this thing,” Weeks said.

Like many library systems in the early months of the pandemic, Weeks said programming for the community went virtual and they provided laptops and hotspots to the community. 

“We really found out that even though Austin is one of the most technological cities there are, a lot of people that do not have technology,” Weeks said.

In June, they began offering curbside services that they have been providing consistently since then.

Weeks said there was debate within the community and city as to whether the library system should have provided more or less services throughout the first year of the pandemic.

“We always err on the side of safety for our staff and we wanted to make sure that we kept our staff safe and our customers safe,” Weeks said, adding that they felt curbside service was the safest option early on.

Weeks said they are planning to expand services to include limited in-person access in either April or May.

“A lot of times people don’t view libraries as being an essential service, but I differ from that (view). I believe libraries offer essential services,” Weeks said.

Dallas Public Library

Jo Giudice, director of libraries in Dallas, said the library system has 30 locations, including the 10-story central library, with about 400 employees. Guidance said about 200 employees were furloughed.

Guidance said the city paid administrative leave for the employees for as long as possible before having to make the difficult decision to implement furloughs. The employees were initially given a July 31, 2020, return date, but Guidance said they were not sure how long the furlough would last.

“We didn’t know what the year was going to bring and what would happen and that was heartbreaking,” Guidance said.

Dallas libraries opened for curbside pickup in September. (Photo courtesy of Dallas Public Library)

Guidance said during the initial shutdown, the library system pivoted to online services and courses. Guidance said the library’s General Education Development high school diploma program and English Language Learning classes were moved to Zoom. Story times and programs like book clubs were also offered online.

The library had 900 hotspots checked out when the pandemic started. Guidance said they were able to increase circulation to 3,000 hotspots and bought another 2,100. They also bought 1,500 laptops and 100 Chromebooks.

Guidance said online programming has continued and they were able to bring back several furloughed employees at the end of May 2020 for the start of curbside service at limited locations in June.

The remaining furloughed staff was back to work by the beginning of September for the preparation of curbside service at all of the Dallas locations, Guidance said.

“That’s where we are right now. All of our locations are doing curbside service and virtual programming. Nobody is in our buildings yet,” Guidance said, adding it is possible that limited in-person services could begin in May.

Guidance said staff have been creative during the pandemic and have been able to adjust to the challenges, but it has also allowed them to plan for the future and reevaluate how services will be provided moving forward.

“It was something that needed to be done anyway, but it was a good opportunity to do some things like internal housekeeping,” Guidance said.

San Antonio Public Library

Haley Holmes, library public services administrator, said the San Antonio Public Library system has a total of 30 locations with about 450 employees. Holmes said no employees were placed on furlough.

“We’ve been exceptionally fortunate and that our city manager has been able to keep all of our staff on,” Holmes said.

Holmes said, like other library systems throughout the state, programs went virtual in March.

A San Antonio library worker sanitizes public spaces. San Antonio has allowed limited indoor library activities since June. (Photo courtesy of San Antonio Public Library)

Locations stayed closed until mid-June. Holmes said all branches started contact-free pick up at that time and began offering appointments for computer use at nine locations.

“We were the earliest major library in Texas to do that and we made that decision based on the digital divide in San Antonio, and how many people here don’t have access at home,” Holmes said.

Holmes said the locations were chosen based on the five council districts that have the highest need. The participating libraries allow three appointments per day and have a 30-minute deep clean in between appointments.

Library staff are not allowed to help patrons using the computers so they are able to have one person with them to help if necessary.

“Our staff came up with what we call a hands-free guide for questions. A lot of people are coming in to apply for assistance, rental assistance, or some of those really basic things like how to create an email account; so we have step-by-step instructions written out to try to help them with that,” Holmes said.

Contact-free pick up and computer appointments opened at all locations in November.

“In general, libraries play an invaluable role in our communities, so when there’s a time of crisis, more people turn to the library for us to help them find resources that they need,” Holmes said.

Fort Worth Public Library

Library Director Manya Shorr said the city has 16 locations with a little over 200 employees. No employees were furloughed.

Shorr said employees who could work from home were able to do that and others whose jobs included shelving books and cleaning participated in a variety of tasks. Shorr said those tasks included activities like personal protective equipment drives, homemade mask drives and making phone calls to all library card holders over the age of 65 just to check in with them, among others.

“It was full time work for a number of employees for a month or two just to keep them working,” Shorr said. “Then I started pushing us to open for the same reason. I am quite worried about the future of libraries that still aren’t open.”

Shorr said in order to keep people employed she felt she needed to prove relevance.

“I need to show that we are important to our community and the way that we do that is to serve. We are service-oriented, so even if it was just curbside or even if it was just calling people we were really focused on working,” Shorr said.

Shorr said the libraries were closed for 66 days, reopened for curbside-only service in May 2020, then started opening doors at half of the locations to the public in June.

Shorr said there was initially a one-hour time limit, but that restriction was lifted a few months ago. She said there are still occupancy restrictions and COVID safety protocols such as social distancing, mask requirements and temperature checks.

Shorr said all locations are scheduled to open at the beginning of April.

Las Cruces Public Library

Margaret Neill, library administrator, said the city has three locations and 38 employees. No employees were furloughed.

“We were committed to keeping staff employed,” she said.

Las Cruces libraries uses this machine to sanitize books with UV-C light and air. (Photo courtesy of Las Cruces Public Library)

Neill said some staff were able to work from home or take leave initially. During the beginning of the shutdown, management staff were at the locations doing behind-the-scenes work such as providing digital library cards, making sure electronic materials were available and answering phone calls.

“A lot of people were scared, a lot of people were calling to find out what’s going on with COVID. So we were there to answer questions,” Neill said.

She said they started to bring more people back to work at the libraries in April for sending books by mail. Curbside service was offered in May, along with computer lab access for limited service to address the digital divide in the city.

The libraries opened for limited lobby service in August. Neill said they blocked off parts of the building to keep track of the limited occupancy, but people were able to browse, find DVDs and get reference help.

The limited lobby services ended in the fall when cases surged in New Mexico, but Neill said she hopes to offer it again soon.

“For us, we never really closed. We’ve been here providing services, either through the mail through online services or curbside consistently since April,” she said.

Cover photo: Las Cruces libraries place checked out books in bags for outdoor pickup by patrons. (Photo courtesy of Las Cruces Public Library)

Elida S. Perez is a senior reporter for El Paso Matters. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities...