Yes, We’re Open: Talking with the Dr. Hector P. Garcia Memorial Library

We have received many questions regarding how libraries throughout the state of Texas are providing services to the public. To help answer these questions, we are starting a blog post series titled Yes, We’re Open, which will interview library directors and workers throughout the state to provide snapshots in library response. In this first installment of the series, we interviewed Marisol Vidales at the Dr. Hector P. Garcia Memorial Library in Mercedes, TX.

Marisol Vidales, woman smiling
Marisol Vidales

In what ways is your library open to the public?

We are currently open at 50% capacity and providing the majority of our services which include circulation of materials, scanning, copying, faxing, and computer use. The library also runs its own café so we have opened that as well. The only two things we have been unable to provide is in person programming and meeting room use. We don’t want to encourage gatherings and so we have held those services back. We also have continued to offer curbside pickup for our café and circulation for those patrons who prefer that. We know cases are rising in the state and we can understand our patrons’ concern with coming into the library.

How have your library’s policies and procedures changed?

The main change is in how we handle material. When we receive items through the mail or book drop we handle everything with gloves. We set aside the mail and newspapers for 24 hours before making them available to the public. We also set aside books and DVD’s for 72 hours before shelving the items and of course prior to shelving them we sanitize the outside of the material. Even within the library we ask patrons to use the indoor book drop when returning items. Due to items not being checked in immediately we have also become more generous with our checkout limit and we take the patron’s word that they returned the items. We also enacted automatic renewals so patrons have even more time with our materials and less of a possibility of incurring fines. It is a very difficult time financially for the majority of the world and we don’t want to add to that burden.

How have you adapted your library space?

Library building
Dr. Hector P. Garcia Memorial Library

To ensure we are providing the recommended 6-foot distance we have removed a lot of our furniture or placed caution tape on the areas that are not available. The few fabric couches we have we moved to our meeting room because we find those more difficult to sanitize. Essentially, our newly remodeled meeting room has become our storage area for all our excess furniture. We also have less computers available for the public due to the 6-foot guideline. We adapted by using our online catalogs as computers as well and providing laptops for check out within the library. We have also marked our book stacks with entrance and exit signs. While we encourage patrons to ask us for the items they want we have not blocked access to the stacks. We also removed all toys, games, and colors from our Children’s Department.

What services are you providing to vulnerable populations?

The curbside service is one of the services we have available for everyone but we highly encourage vulnerable populations to use it. We find the items for the patron, check them out over the phone, and place them in the trunk of their car when they arrive so it is a contactless experience. We also recommend that vulnerable populations use our audio and electronic books through RB Digital so they don’t even have to leave their home. The Hidalgo County Library System was recently given $75,000 by the county so we can continue to expand the collection which has become increasingly important in a time like this. As far as services for children we have been holding a virtual story and craft time through Facebook Live. We have story time twice a week and the craft activity once a week. We want to be able to provide something fun and distracting for them and to keep the connection to the library going even when they can’t visit in person. For those patrons who do not have access to the internet at home we are offering our public computers with no time limits. We realize that some patrons may be job searching, filing for unemployment, or applying for assistance so we don’t want to time anyone. We also offer anyone who does not have a physical address an e-card so they can use our computers. We have made our wi-fi available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in our library parking lot.  I wish we were able to offer more such as wi-fi hot spots, bookmobiles, senior hours, removing all fines, etc.  but either due to budget constraints or policy we have been unable to offer that. I strongly advocate that whatever you have in your power to do to help vulnerable populations at this time whether psychically or financially don’t hesitate. Our communities need the help of libraries more than ever before.  

How are you helping your staff during reopening?

Mary Jane Hernandez and Isabel Mendoza

With the staff the main thing has been providing protection. Prior to reopening I looked into providing acrylic shields or sneeze guards for every circulation desk. Unfortunately, the cost was over $3,000 so the initial purchase was not approved. Having developed an excellent relationship with my Public Works Department we brainstormed on ways to make the shields in-house. Thankfully, we were able to make some out of clear vinyl and wood frames. We now have them in every area where the staff are dealing with the public and we were able to have them in place by the time we opened which was May 4. I also wanted staff to be comfortable in dealing with patrons out on the floor so we invested in face shields for everyone to provide that extra protection. We also have gloves, disposable masks, and hand sanitizer available for all the staff. Plus, every morning we are doing temperature checks with a touchless thermometer. All these precautions help keep us safe and lower the risk.

As far as mental and emotional support we have been meeting every Friday to address any concerns and any updates with regards to COVID-19. Our first meeting was prior to us opening and we implemented remote desktop on all our public computers so staff can assist patrons with computer questions while complying to social distancing. We also did a lot of role playing that day regarding patrons who may refuse to wear a mask or not comply with social distance. As things evolve we make sure to discuss it and have a clear message we want to portray.

Describe your decision-making process. How do you communicate with your governing authority?

I work for a fairly small municipality. We have a population of about 16,500. With that being said it is fairly easy to speak directly with our City Manager. Often, I propose changes or ask questions simply by email or text messages, which is great because it’s a faster response. If something I am proposing is more complicated then I do have to provide documentation such as memos with statistics to substantiate my request. Obviously, certain things are not within the city manager’s control such as direct changes to our policy manual or anything over $5,000 in cost. In those instances, I do run everything by my City Manager first to get his approval and suggestions. If it’s dealing with policy, it does have to go by my Library Board and then City Commission. If it’s funding then it has to go to City Commission.

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