18 July 2020

To open, or not to open, that is the challenge

By Esther Woo, Deputy University Librarian / Fung Ping Shan Librarian and Michael Cheng, Associate Librarian (Lending Services and Learning Environments) The University of Hong Kong Libraries

Maintaining our services at a time with uncertain health risk is a challenge most of us seldom encounter in our career. However, our libraries did face such a challenge twice, once during SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, and now the current COVID-19 pandemic.

As a safety measure to protect our staff and patrons, our libraries extended its closure during the Chinese New Year holidays in late January/early February and then closed all our premises/offices again from late March to mid-April during the peak period of confirmed cases in Hong Kong. With the local pandemic situation stabilized, we attempted to reopen our main library from 20 April and gradually resume services of our branches from 7 May onwards under the direction of the University.

Guided by the Libraries’ Preparedness Plan for Outbreak of a Pandemic Disease and constantly updated statistics of service requests on our intranet, all divisional heads and team supervisors worked from home as a virtual team through platforms such as WhatsApp and Zoom during the periods of partial and total closure. This communication network was essential in gathering and disseminating information efficiently to support instant and urgent decision making. Effective communication with our staff and contract service providers was also critical in preparing for service resumption. The library management worked closely with frontline supervisors to address the concern of many staff about their safety. Lots of logistical efforts were required to marshal sufficient resources such as personal protective equipment, thermometers, disinfectant, cleaning and security services before the date of reopening was confirmed.

Once the details of service resumption were worked out by various divisions, our support teams would communicate the new opening schedules and other service changes to patrons via the library/university webpage and social media to reduce the load on our mail/telephone/WhatsApp enquiry channels.

Safety measures of library staff and users were essential before the HKU library was re-opened in Feb 2020. Before the re-opening, our libraries ensured a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) which includes face masks, disposable gloves and goggles for library staff. Each library frontline staff was provided with a disposable mask daily. For public health and safety, all staff and patrons must wear masks inside the libraries. The library staff would notify those who didn’t wear masks with a written note. In particular, the University installed a thermo-camera at the library entrance in March to  monitor the body temperature of all entrants.

As COVID-19 posed an unprecedented challenge, the HKU Libraries also reviewed and enforced the safety measures in an agile and impromptu manner according to any new measures introduced by the HKSAR government and HKU health services. For example, when the Government imposed the requirement on all inbound travelers to wear isolation bracelets and self quarantine for 14 days, HKU libraries initiated check on compliance by entrants to libraries. Libraries also implemented the quarantine of return-items (excluding hold items/short term loans) for a period of 2-7 days to protect users and staff from infection.

In addition to the above safety measures, the HKU Libraries also introduced different training for staff ranging from Zoom and telephone meetings to on-site briefings. The training contents covered a range of topics including logistics before library opening, setting up Zoom counters, online customer service skills, and IT training, etc.

As shared by our University Librarian in a recent webinar of the American Library Association, this unprecedented experience had strengthened our belief that disaster and contingency planning, agility, change, resilience, empathy, creativity, and accountability have become top leadership qualities these days.

At a staff farewell gathering for our retirees a couple of weeks ago, one of them expressed her gratitude to the libraries for its human approach in the decision making on service suspension as well as planning of reopening logistics. We are glad that all our staff and patrons remain safe and many of them have now evolved as avid users of digital tools for their work and learning.

Photos:

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A thermo-camera was installed at the entrance of the Main Library. If the patron has a body temperature of over 37.5 degrees Celsius, there will audio and visual alerts on the speaker and monitor respectively.

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Big signage informs users about major safety measures at HKU Libraries.

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To keep social distancing between users, out of service signs are put on some workstations.

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3D-printed or hand-made face shields  are also available for library front-line staff.

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