Tape, traffic rules, and way fewer desks

Coronaproofing the UB

If they place traffic lights at the bathrooms and get rid of three quarters of the desks, the UB might, eventually, be able to reopen to students. But it could take until the end of this calendar year before everything is up and running again. 
Text by Christien Boomsma / Video by Lidian Boelens / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

You can still borrow books

The rooms at the UB may have closed down, but the library is still lending out books. In fact, the lending desk is working just as hard as it always did.

This also means people are still working the repository. These days, however, only three people are allowed in the ‘blue room’, where borrowers can pick up the books they reserved and where books returned through the slot in the Poststraat end up. The books are quarantined for five days after their return. Then they go back into the repository for people to borrow.

The UB is definitely not reopening before the summer. Students who happily watched the government announce that libraries were allowed to reopen, and cautiously celebrated as researchers were allowed to enter the Special Collections room at the UB, will be disappointed. ‘We have a responsibility to our students and staff’, says UB facilities manager Albert van der Kloet. ‘We can’t risk any potential headlines about how the UB was the source of a new wave of infections.’

Van der Kloet has been working hard for weeks. As facilities manager for a place where thousands of students and staff members gather to study and do research, it’s his job to make sure everything is safe. But that doesn’t mean he could sit back and relax when the building closed its doors on March 14. On the contrary, he’s been running from meeting to meeting, measuring the library floors, drawing up floor plans to determine how many desks he can fit in there, and ordering disinfectant and rubber gloves, all in an effort to reopen the UB. He has to make sure everything is safe and that the people using the library can keep their distance from each other.

Turns out it’s not that easy.

Hundreds of students

‘Look at this’, says Van der Kloet, as he takes his tape measure and rolls it out in the UB lobby, measuring the distance from the front desk to the wall. ‘It’s barely 4.5 metres.’

If you thought this meant three people staying 1,5 metres away from each other can walk the lobby side by side, you’d be wrong. ‘Because if someone is standing at the front desk and someone else is waiting 1.5 metres behind them, people coming through the revolving doors come too close to the person waiting. We can’t have that happen.’ That’s a problem, since on busy days, hundreds of students come through the door.

We can’t have hundreds of students coming through the revolving doors

He suggests the entire front desk might have to move. Perhaps the people who work it will have to move further down the hall. 

Over the past few weeks, he’s gone over every single option, possibility, and solution in his mind. So much needs to be done. They need protective screens or gloves for the people at the front desk and in the Special Collections room. ‘I just placed an order for two thousand gloves’, he says. ‘I haven’t heard about any problems with the order, so I think it’ll be okay.’ 

Traffic lights

It’s not an easy job, especially since everything could change at the drop of a hat, should the government announce new guidelines. Take the bathrooms, for example. They pose a problem when it comes to coronaproofing the UB. ‘Maybe we can install traffic lights’, Van der Kloet muses. ‘That might actually be a good idea.’ But if the government were to suddenly decide that people only need to wear a face mask to go to the bathroom, those lights won’t be needed.

And how can they make sure that people who need the bathroom on the left don’t intersect with people going to the coffee room on the right? Should they install more protective shields? Should the coffee room close?

One thing is certain: traffic in the UB will be one way for now. Tape on the floor will tell students and staff members where to go. The building will have one entrance, and one exit – potentially past the lending desk. The flow of traffic will be in clockwise direction as much as possible. ‘But those rules should apply to all university buildings. People would get confused if traffic is clockwise here and then anti-clockwise in the Academy building.’

Right of way

Everyone will have to learn the traffic rules. People who enter a room have the right of way over people who exit a room. People coming from the right are allowed to pass people coming from the left. If people get confused, they get too close to each other. ‘I read what happened in that night club in South Korea’, says Van der Kloet. ‘So many people were infected there. It made me realise just how fast it can happen.’

Of the 146 computers in this room, we can only keep 42

He walks through the turnstiles and up the stairs. The elevators are accessible only to people who really need them. The stairs are so wide that two streams of people on either side complies with the social-distancing rules. The real problem is the large study halls.

Van der Kloet pulls out his tape measure and uses it to assess a desk that holds four computers. ‘There’s less than 1.5 metres between the two computers next to each other, and there isn’t enough room between the computers facing each other, either. Only one person will be able to sit at this desk.’ 

Another desk, with eight computers, will only have room for three people. ‘Of the 146 computers in this room, we can only keep forty-two.’ The little studios with room for four? Only two people will be allowed in at once. Students will also no longer be allowed to just join each other in the smaller studios. Stickers on the door will indicate how many people are allowed inside.

Registration system

If Van der Kloet maximises the use of available space, each floor will have room for approximately one hundred students. That means the entire UB will hold no more than five hundred people. The library as we know it is no longer. ‘I think these new rules will be in place for a few years at least’, says Van der Kloet.  

Overarching university organisation VSNU is also talking about registering users and their location. ‘It would allow us to track who someone who was ill came into contact with.’ However, that would mean the library has to set up a reservation and registration system. How would that work? Van der Kloet doesn’t know.

He feels the pressure; from students, researchers, the board. He knows people want their library back. But it has to be safe. 

Test case

Should a student who’s nearly finished be given priority over a first-year?  

He wants to err on the side of caution. Opening the Special Collections room, which only sees a handful of visitors anyway, is a test case. If all goes well, they’ll reopen the studios on a single floor, and maybe another one after that. Perhaps they’ll be able to reopen an entire floor at some point, but it definitely won’t be before September. Step by step. After thirty-four years at the UB, Van der Kloet knows people. It takes just one person flaunting the rules to cause trouble. 

Then there’s the question of who to allow into the library. ‘Should a master student who’s nearly finished with their thesis and can’t work on it at home be given priority over a first-year?’ Or is it just a matter of first come, first serve? How long will people be allowed to occupy a spot? Half a day? Days on end?

He looks out across the dark and empty room where students used to sit and cram for their exams. ‘It’s unreal.’


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