Your Turn: Somerset County Library System responds to issues at Hillsborough branch


Somerset County Library System of New Jersey (SCLSNJ) operates 10 branch libraries throughout Somerset County. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in response to Executive Orders from the governor, SCLSNJ closed all branches to the public, but continued to offer services virtually.


As soon as the governor permitted libraries to expand services, SCLSNJ began offering curbside pickup, and continued to expand those services as the governor’s Executive Orders allowed. When Executive Order 173 gave libraries permission to reopen to the public, SCLSNJ began opening its branches to welcome back the public.


At each step in this process, SCLSNJ worked to keep a balance between two vitally important principles – protecting the health and safety of SCLSNJ staff and visitors, and protecting the privacy rights of all library users. SCLSNJ imposes strict standards for health and safety – all staff and visitors are required to wear face masks in the library and to practice social distancing, as indicated on floor markings and posted reminders; clear plastic barriers have been installed throughout each branch to insult visitors from staff members, and interpersonal contacts as kept to a minimum (no more than 5 minutes whenever possible); high-touch surface areas are wiped down throughout the day and more intense cleaning is done after hours; the number of persons permitted to enter the library at any time is limited to a maximum of 25% of capacity; and hours of operation have been shortened in each branch.


Unfortunately, at the Hillsborough branch, the hours have been curtailed even further, at the direction of Hillsborough Township. Upon reopening its municipal building to limited public visitation, Hillsborough instituted a requirement that anyone entering had to provide personal contact information, which the township intends to use for contact tracing in the event of an exposure. Because the Hillsborough branch library occupies a space, which is connected to the municipal building, Hillsborough requires all visitors to the library to provide the same information. Hillsborough stops collecting this information at 4:30 p.m. weekdays and not at all on the weekends, but the library normally would be open to 8 p.m. and for limited hours on both Saturday and Sunday.


Hillsborough imposed its requirement to collect personal information upon the library during hours when the township is not collecting it, with the expectation that the library would turn over the personal information about visitors to the township upon request. Under state law, libraries are prohibited from disclosing personal information about any library user to anyone outside of the library unless the individual consents or a court issues an order directing the disclosure. SCLSNJ explained to Hillsborough why it could not collect and release the personal information about all visitors in the matter Hillsborough demanded, and the township said the library could not be open after 4:30 p.m. and on weekends if it did not collect this information from visitors.

SCLSNJ offered several different compromise solutions to try to resolve this issue and extend its hours, but the township rejected each one.


SCLSNJ has continually sought creative solutions to satisfy Hillsborough’s demands without compromising the privacy rights of all persons who visit the Library. Over the past several days, senior SCLSNJ administration have been working with SCLSNJ’s attorney, and devised yet another compromise resolution, which SCLSNJ’s attorney is in the process of presenting to Hillsborough’s attorney for consideration. We remain hopeful that Hillsborough will accept this reasonable solution, so that the library can expand its hours and better service its customers, as it has been trying to do since it reopened in July.


The Hillsborough branch staff, in response to the shortened hours, has been providing Hands Free Holds (contactless pickup) for customers since July 6, 2020 as follows:


  • Monday-Thursday 4:30-8 p.m.

  • Friday 4:30-6 p.m.

  • Saturday 10-6 p.m.

  • This article was submitted by the Somerset County Library System of New Jersey