When the New York Public Library launched grab-and-go service just over three weeks ago, Danny Pearlstein reserved 10 books at the first opportunity and eagerly waited for them to arrive at his local branch.

They began to come in one at a time 10 days later, but one of his books went missing. He thought, perhaps, that another book-hungry patron had checked it out.  

“I have placed probably more than a thousand books on hold over several years,” said Pearlstein, who works on policy and media relations for the Riders Alliance. “No one has ever borrowed one of my holds in my place, nor has one ever been checked out to me without my physically carrying it off the shelf and to the check out desk.” 

Library officials throughout the city say that hiccups like that are extremely rare and that the grab-and-go launch — filling the void while library shelves remain off limits to the public — has been an overwhelming success. 

“It has been going very well,” said Nick Buron, chief librarian of the Queens Public Library. “Clearly, after almost four months of being closed, our customers were aching for physical books.”

Isolating Texts

All returned items are quarantined in plastic bins for 96 hours, as per the guidelines set out by public health officials and the REALM Project, a research initiative involving the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The books and other materials are all isolated in empty rooms and labeled by each day so staff knows when to put them back into circulation. 

Before the pandemic hit, the NYPL had approximately 250,000 items checked out and allowed card-holders to keep them for an extended period. 

Patrons returned approximately 30,000 of those books and other materials after the system reopened eight sites on July 13, said Brian Bannon, the Merryl and James Tisch director of The New York Public Library.

“The giant bins quickly filled up,” he said. “Fortunately, we had a back order cache of them in preparation for future grab-and-go sites.”

Some prolific readers check out the maximum 50 number of books at a time and are constantly cycling through new material, he added. 

The Kingsbridge Library in The Bronx is serving up grab-and-go books. Credit: Jonathan Blanc/New York Public Library

On Monday, the NYPL reopened 22 additional branches for limited service, bringing the total to 30 — about one-third of its locations. That system, serving Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island, logged nearly 60,000 reservations placed from the launch of grab-and-go through Aug. 2, according to the NYPL. 

The Queens Public Library, meanwhile, plans to reopen eight more branches this Monday, according to Buron. That will bring the total to 15 of the system’s 66 locations, with more openings planned by mid-September. 

Patrons have reserved some 32,262 books and other items, with 23,210 taken out at the seven locations currently open, according to the Queens Public Library. 

“A couple of our locations have been circulating a book a minute,” Buron said. 

Still, overall numbers are way down compared to before the pandemic, where typically a million items a month would be checked out, he added. 

In Brooklyn, the number of grab-and-go branches — currently seven — is also expected to expand this Monday, according to Fritzi Bodenheimer, a library spokesperson. The number and locations have yet to be announced. 

Borrowing Ideas

The city libraries have begun to open limited service gradually, allowing for time to install plexiglass barriers and rework how the items are checked out. 

Such caution was informed by reopening pains in other big cities, Bannon noted — like the system he previously ran in Chicago, where all libraries came back into service simultaneously, leaving some branches underprepared. The Vancouver library system faced similar challenges, he added. 

“One of the things we learned is we wanted to start small at first,” Bannon said, added that all the materials are already checked out when patrons come to pick them up. 

“We had to completely rethink our whole system for checkouts in order to contact less,” he said. 

Books waiting to be grabbed — and read — at the Kingsbridge Library in The Bronx Credit: Jonathan Blanc/New York Public Library

Before their sites reopened, the city’s three library systems saw a huge spike in e-book borrowers, THE CITY reported. They all shifted resources to purchase additional digital items to keep up with the demand. 

“We are continuing to see those numbers stay,” said Bannon.

As for Pearlstein, he learned that his missing book, “Brilliant Beacons” by Eric Jay Dolin, was automatically checked out when it arrived in the Francis Martin branch in The Bronx.

“It makes it easier for pick-up, because then there’s no patron interaction with staff. I just walk in, grab the books, and walk back out again,” he said. “But I had to go to the branch to figure that out.”