Iowa City Public Library reopens for limited browsing, Bookmobile returns

Staff members of the Iowa City Public Library shared their excitement for the library’s limited reopening, and explained how physical browsing and Bookmobile services will differ in compliance with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


Jeff Sigmund

The Iowa City Public Libraries’ Bookmobile on Thursday, March 18, 2021. Sitting in the Hy-Vee parking lot, 812 S. 1st ave, one of many locations. Library patrons can place a book on hold and pick it up from the bookmobile.

Maddie Johnston, Arts Reporter

The well-loved library-on-wheels, Iowa City Public Library’s Bookmobile, has returned from its months-long hiatus and is back on the streets.

Sam Helmick, community and access services coordinator at the Iowa City Public Library, said the Bookmobile’s services are needed now more than ever. The Bookmobile, Helmick said, is one of the library’s greatest tools for outreach and connecting with the community and serves to establish the library’s presence in the community outside its physical location.

“It’s very difficult for communities that struggle with transportation and mobility to be able to come down to the downtown library,” Helmick said. “And then, if all you can do is pick up holds at this time because of the pandemic, and you can’t browse and enjoy programs outside of the virtual space, it’s much easier if we can come to you.”

Face masks and social distancing will still be required when in line or near the Bookmobile. Physical browsing is not yet allowed inside the enclosed space, so the Bookmobile staff place items on the pickup table outside and offer a selection of donated books for browsing for visitors to take home. The books require no library card or checkout.

“It’s been remarkable,” Helmick said. “Last Tuesday, we had a dozen people in the first hour and folks waiting for us as we pulled up.”

The library was forced to scale back services to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in March 2020. It reopens today for limited browsing, public computer use, printing, and library card sign-up and renewals. This will be the fourth phase of the library’s reopening plan, with its fifth and final step being full access to browsing and library services.

The library immediately swung into virtual programming a year ago among rapidly rising COVID-19 cases in Iowa. Since then, it has offered curbside checkout and relied on digital resources like Libby and Canopy.

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The library staff also quickly began crafting what it called “ICPL COVID-19 Reopening Guidelines,” a firm rubric documenting COVID-19 benchmarks the library needed to hit before its limited reopening.

Carman said waiting for Iowa’s COVID-19 transmission rates to decline below 5 percent was the most difficult benchmark to wait for.

“We’re all library people who work here,” Carman said. “We’re not scientists, we’re not backers, but we were doing a lot of research — we love that part of it — and we came up with this [reopening plan] and then vetted it, both through Johnson County Public Health, the library board voted in support of it, and we, of course, shared copies and versions of it with the city administration to make sure that it aligned with everybody else’s plans.”

The library will go forward with an enforcement of limited capacity, face masks, and social distancing. Helmick said the staff has done its best to create a safe environment with plexiglass and limited furniture and will ask people to browse in a purposeful manner, so the library can have as many people as possible throughout the day for equitable access.

“We’re just absolutely excited to see folks and welcome them back into their library,” Helmick said.

Carman said visitors can expect to see many fresh books and other materials to borrow, as well as updates to the library’s physical space, like a fresh paint job and removal of most furniture. Computer sessions will be available to patrons in hour-long time slots.

“I think the vast majority of staff are just thrilled with the idea of finally getting a little bit back to work that we love, which is serving people,” Carman said. “It’s been a really odd year, we hope we’re coming to the close of it, but every step of the way we had users who were excited about the development, who maximized what was available through the library, and that has made it so much more fun, and so much more interesting, and really kept the feeling of service alive. So, we’re incredibly grateful that our community has stayed with us, and we can’t wait to see folks.”