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A trip to the library in Kent as it reopens for indoor visits

The public library where I grew up had an old claw-foot bathtub right in the middle of the children's section. The tub was lined with carpet, and it was there for kids to sit in and read.

I loved it. When I was little, I would grab a copy of “Strega Nona” or "The True Story of the Three Little Pigs" (two of my favorites), and just leaf through the pages. The tub is still there, by the way. I checked!

The library was a special place. It still is. And here in the Northwest, libraries are starting to open their doors again.

The King County Library System is now providing indoor visits at limited capacity. Thelibrary in Kent, for example, is open at 25 percent capacity, for alternating hours. It lets people in for an hour, then the staff clears the building, cleans everything and reopens for more people. That repeats throughout the day.

The library looks a little different than it might have a year ago. The tables with computers are spaced farther apart. There are plexiglass shields up around the checkout counters and information desks. But the staff is here, masked up, ready to go.

“We can offer a lot of service to people, even though it’s at a social distance and the time is minimized,” said Cori Lichtenberg, a library technical assistant.

She admitted that she was a little nervous about reopening for indoor visits.

“I don’t fall into a category where I can easily get vaccinated" right now, Lichtenberg said. “You bet I was scared. But with the support of the library system, I felt comfortable. I knew they had us.”

The King County Library System has 50 locations and some 740,000 library cardholders. It serves communities in a variety of locations. Kent, for example, is the state’s sixth-largest city with nearly 121,000 people. But there’s also a library in the Cascade foothills community of Skykomish, population 121, where hikers from the Pacific Crest Trail sometimes drop in to check email.

The library has been providing services online all throughout the pandemic – online, by phone and even curbside. In the early days of the pandemic, the King County Library System (and plenty of others in western Washington) worked to make sure the public had factual, science-based information on COVID-19, distributed online, by phone and over email.

But reopening for indoor visits opens up more possibilities.

“Now what we’re seeing is people calling us and coming in, and saying, ‘I need to get this vaccine. Can I get a computer and sit on it for a while, and can you help me?’ ” said Lisa Rosenblum, executive director of the King County Library System. “We do know, particularly in south [King] County, there are equity issues with getting broadband and getting computer access.”

The goal, Rosenblum said, is to provide as much service as possible, as safely as they can.

Other libraries in the region are offering versions of indoor service, including the Sno-Isle Libraries, the Whatcom County Library System, and the Everett Library. The North Olympic Library System, which serves locations in Clallam and Jefferson counties, started limited in-building services on March 1.

The Pierce County Library System has some limited tech services available at its Lakewood location and plans to expand its in-building services at other locations in the coming weeks. The Tacoma Public Library plans something similar this month.

And Seattle has all buildings closed to the public but is offering curbside service.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.