Toronto Public Library curbside pickup gaining in popularity after just one week

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Dozens of rows of brown paper bags are lined up on a table with orders stapled to them. A friendly staff member greets customers, handing over their orders with gloved hands and a smile in her eyes -- and presumably one under her mask.

It's not a local takeout restaurant though, it's the front-facing side of the Toronto Public Library's new curbside pickup system as restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic are eased.

"I think maybe the first time you come in it's a little disconcerting because you can't see people's faces and you don't have that same one-on-one, but as soon as people are able to get materials back in their hands, they're really really happy," said Sarah Bradley, library service manager for the city's Northern District, as she stood in the foyer of one of her branches.

"We've seen a lot of really excited people, they want to come right inside and we have to sort of stop them, for now."

TPL began making appointments for curbside pickup on June 8 at 67 of its branches, a week after 70 of its locations started accepting returns in their drop boxes. Customer appointments are 10 minutes apart, with their books, DVDs, or CDs waiting for them in bags. Those bags are put in order of the time they're to be picked up to streamline the process and put them into the customers' hands as quickly as possible and minimize contact.

Bradley said that the positive feedback has been immediate, with customers flocking to the libraries offering curbside pickup.

"We just started this week and in the first three days we had 3,685 appointments booked online overall," said Bradley. "Now we're booking into the 8000s so it just keeps growing and growing."

Safety precautions have been implemented at each step of the borrowing process, following guidelines made in collaboration with Toronto's public health authorities.

Library materials cannot be returned directly to staff, instead having to go into the drop box. Those materials are then picked up by a library worker in full personal-protective equipment, placed in a labelled box, and set aside in a special quarantine room where it will sit for 72 hours before being put back in circulation.

Materials that can be taken out are limited to books, DVDs, CDs, and audiobooks, and all staff that handle them must wear a mask and gloves at all times.

Even lunch breaks are closely monitored, with staff spacing out their time in branch kitchens so that no two people are in the same room at the same time.

Bradley said that means a new approach to how libraries are organized, whether it's scheduling or repurposing space.

"In some places we're moving the materials downstairs or upstairs to (be quarantined) in a program room," said Bradley, noting that larger branches like Northern District at Yonge and Eglinton are easier to adapt to this new system. "We're lucky here that we've got such a big open space that we could just find somewhere in there."

Many of the in-building programs the library usually hosts have been suspended for now, but Bradley notes that some have moved to online forums, including storytime for children and book clubs for adults.

Bradley also said that this transitional period is an opportunity for the Toronto Public Library to experiment with how it uses its spaces, including more programs outdoors and reimagining its branches when restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.

"I think there will be long term and some permanent changes," said Bradley. "Long term for customers in terms of having a private space or not having to sit right next to someone."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 14, 2020.

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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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