April 21, 2020

Library workers rise to challenge of COVID-19

April 21 is National Library Workers Day. Library workers are facing unprecedented circumstances due to the coronavirus pandemic and AFSCME members at Illinois libraries are rising to the challenge.

From the earliest days of this outbreak, local union leaders in libraries throughout the state responded quickly to the pandemic, advocating for the safety and financial security of employees by urging library administrations to have work from home and remain in paid status.


Although the Belleville Public Library closed soon after local schools did, when Go. Pritzker extended the shelter-in-place order through April 30 the administration implied he wanted staff to start coming into the building a few times a week.

“We were severely limited without patrons coming into the library, so we were just going to have to sit in the library for two or three hours with nothing to do that we couldn’t do from home,” said Rebecca Cline, president of Local 1765.

She mentioned the possibility of an informational picket outside the library if library workers were forced to start coming into the building again. “All of a sudden management became very amicable,” reported Cline, “and library staff were told to continue to work from home.”

Most libraries in Illinois where AFSCME members work agreed to close without much public pressure, but the Chicago Public Library (CPL) initially only closed some branches, leaving many Local 1215 members on the job in settings where it would be extremely difficult to maintain appropriate social distancing or limit transmission.

Union leaders at Chicago libraries organized a call-in campaign to put pressure on officials to close all library branches throughout the city.

“After several back and forth encounters via email and phone and two in-person meetings with representatives from the Mayor's Office and senior management in CPL, finally the libraries were closed,” said John Rayburn, Local 1215 President.


Although most library staff are now practicing social distancing and working from home, that has not stopped AFSCME members from innovating and finding new ways to reach patrons and engage with their communities despite the pandemic.

Library workers have set up safe virtual resources for their communities, recording themselves reading, employing stuffed animals and even a Guinea pig to engage children online and inventing new and creative ways to inform, educate, entertain and keep their communities safe during this difficult time. Members of AFSCME Local 2283 at the Aurora Public Library are even using the library’s 3D printers to make face masks for health care workers.

Kristen Newcomb, a reference librarian at Berwyn Public Library and Vice President of AFSCME Local 1041, said many staff from her library are taking webinar trainings, hosting virtual book clubs, recording story times and reaching out to patrons via social media to share recommendations and information about the library’s digital resources.

Janella Herbig, a library assistant at the East branch of the Rockford Public Library and President of Local 3350, said many library staff in Rockford are using the time to write book reviews, train online and host online story times. “We have a lot of digital resources on our website for patrons and we’re working on making it easier to renew or get a library card online” said Herbig.

Maintenance and custodial staff at most libraries are still going in to the buildings to make sure they are clean and in good repair so that libraries will be safe and welcoming for patrons and staff once they reopen.

Find out more at the AFSCME Library Workers’ Facebook page and webpage.

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