With the nationwide closures that followed the COVID-19 pandemic, many buildings, establishments, and companies were forced to go virtual, a move that many of them made with relatively little loss. But what happens to places that are built and funded as safe places to stay and to learn? Such was the dilemma that public libraries found themselves in.
Those affected by the sudden change in everyday lifestyle were far from just the library staff who keep the buildings running. “In truth, this pandemic is actually a challenge for everyone who relies on being able to use our physical library spaces,” said Michelle Jeffers, Chief of Community Programs & Partnerships at San Francisco Public Library. Libraries provide safe spaces for all sorts of people, be it those experiencing houselessness who need a place to stay, students in search of a quiet place to study, or just people looking for a good book. Removing the physical aspects of these services has led to one of the most dramatic, pandemic-fueled shifts throughout the past nine months.
Jeffers’s job, on a daily basis, involves “lead[ing] community engagement, public affairs, and public programming and exhibitions.” Under these strenuous circumstances, she and her co-workers have had to shift their responsibilities and take on vastly different roles. “Employees of the City of San Francisco, during an emergency situation [such] as a pandemic, are deemed Disaster Service Workers and can be placed into any disaster service work that the city requires,” explained Jeffers.
As a librarian, Jeffers is categorized as a city employee, a distinction that might not be immediately evident. She detailed how library staff have been repurposed as “contact tracers, food bank workers, test site greeters, outreach workers, emergency housing support, community hub hosts, and many other jobs.” Along with being temporarily moved to other fields, San Francisco’s librarians have become Disaster Service Workers, supporting the citywide COVID-19 response.
At Berkeley Public Library, librarians are still working their normal jobs, for the most part. However, the library staff have seen a drastic medium shift, explained Heather Cummins, the supervising librarian at Berkeley Public Library.
Her job entails offering “support and direction to the librarians who provide teen programming, collections, outreach, and services to teens and young adults,” as well as making sure the library has a thriving social media presence and leading events and services. Cummins has overseen the transition of her staff to a virtual platform, and helped them build new infrastructure and skills. “We’ve had to learn really quickly how to foster relationships with our patrons in a virtual environment, create original media content … and facilitate program audience interactions online,” she explained.
In a transition period of nine months, the library has moved from an in-person hub of education and safety to a digital place of learning. They offer all sorts of engaging online events and resources, including children’s yoga, weekly storytime, tech help services, ESL conversation clubs, and informative presentations on health insurance.
“It’s been pretty wild, but I’m excited and proud of all of the skills staff have accumulated so quickly. Patrons are loving the programs Library staff are offering and feel a sense of continuity of relationship to the Library while we are socially distanced,” said Cummins.
She was even able to find some benefits through online communication. She explained, “Since our programs are virtual, they’re not tethered to a specific Library Branch location. … think maybe being virtual has helped us not be so siloed when we approach creating work together.” One example of this increased collaboration is that children’s librarians have begun working with staff from other libraries.
With everyone gone from the library’s halls, Cummins and her affiliates have found a silver lining. They’ve been able to dedicate an unprecedented amount of time to completing one of their most ambitious construction projects in the Central Library: remodeling the interior’s design and creating new spaces.
“One specific project was the completion of a dedicated teen space. The finished room is amazing … the room offers the flexibility of study space, supports group work, relaxation, and a place to be with friends,” Cummins said.
Though their doors may be shut now, libraries all over the Bay Area are working to improve for when they can open again. “I cannot wait to welcome back our community’s teens and young adults into the Central Library,” said Cummins.