San Francisco Libraries Still Closed As Their Staff Work on COVID-19 Front Lines

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San Francisco Public Library librarian Molly McCall has been working on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic as a disaster service worker. She is one of many of the city's librarians who are wondering when they'll be able to get back to their regular jobs. (Courtesy Molly McCall)

Molly McCall is a librarian based at the San Francisco Public Library’s Excelsior branch. For the past couple of months, she’s been reassigned as a disaster service worker.

"You get a badge and everything," she said.

Lately, McCall has been delivering meals to at-risk people in a Civic Center hotel. She and other library workers are doing contact tracing, running food banks and helping out at hotels and trailer parks where the city is housing homeless people.

She said she’s proud of San Francisco for taking such a cautious approach to the coronavirus recovery process and loves being of service.

"It is really satisfying, rewarding work," McCall said. "It feels great to be giving people food and helping."

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Many of her colleagues agree.

"Being with the most needy in the city at this time is very gratifying," said Main Library librarian Moazzam Sheikh, who recently completed a stint as a disaster service worker delivering meals at a trailer park. "People were so grateful."

"We love our city. We want to help people," said West Portal branch librarian Angela Moffett, who has contributed to the disaster relief effort also by serving meals at an outdoor site.

Now, after months of closure, the public libraries around the Bay Area are slowly starting to reopen.

Libraries in San Jose, Santa Rosa and Alameda County have started offering curbside pickup. Oakland will begin its service on Friday, and Berkeley has gone public on plans to do the same soon.

One notable exception is San Francisco, where more than a third of library workers continue to do frontline disaster relief, while reopening plans remain under wraps.

As of June 12, roughly 350 San Francisco library employees out of a total staff of around 900 were currently working on the front lines of the city’s coronavirus relief efforts, alongside workers from other city departments such as the Human Services Agency and the Public Utilities Commission.

There’s a clause in the employment contracts of all San Francisco city employees that states they may be called upon to do disaster service work in the case of a local emergency.

"But of course, we all thought of it as, like, responding after an earthquake or something like that," McCall said. "I mean, who could imagine any of this?"

With other Bay Area libraries in the process of bringing librarians back to their regular jobs, McCall and many of her colleagues are concerned that San Francisco hasn’t yet done the same.

On May 28, the city included libraries in the draft press release detailing reopening plans for the week of June 15, dubbed Phase 2B — but then removed them by the time the official statement was released, a few hours later.

A draft press release from the San Francisco mayor's office shows libraries as being slated for reopening for curbside pickup in Phase 2B starting June 15. The mention of libraries was removed by the time the official press release went out later on May 28.
A draft press release from the San Francisco mayor's office shows libraries as being slated for reopening for curbside pickup in Phase 2B starting June 15. The mention of libraries was removed by the time the official press release went out later on May 28. (Screenshot of draft press release)

"The content in the embargoed release was based on a draft list of activities that would be allowed to resume in phases," wrote the mayor's deputy press director Sarah Owens in an email. "There were some adjustments to that content prior to issuing the final release, which is why library curbside pickup wasn't in the final version."

"I don't know anything about a draft press release indicating we were supposed to reopen on June 15," wrote Michelle Jeffers, San Francisco Public Library's chief of community programs and partnerships. "That is the first I've heard of that."

Members of the library's rank and file said they have been receiving conflicting messages and an overall lack of communication from the city's senior management.

West Portal branch librarian Angela Moffett in costume for a special library event. (Courtesy of Angela Moffett)

"I think there's been a real lack of transparency," said librarian Moffett. "We're not really privy to the decision making."

Moffett said patrons have also been asking what’s going on.

"Myself and other librarians at our branches have been getting calls and emails from patrons wanting to know when we're reopening," said Moffett. "So I know the patrons are eager to see some kind of service resume."

The San Francisco Public Library turned down KQED’s request for an interview with its top official, City Librarian Michael Lambert.

But in a recent email obtained by KQED, Lambert told library staff, "One of the challenges to be overcome for our eventual reopening of SFPL is orchestrating the return of library workers from their Disaster Service Work assignments."

San Francisco City Librarian Michel Lambert. (Courtesy of San Francisco Public Library)

Lambert wrote that it could be a year before some librarians, particularly those involved in contact tracing, will get to return to their regular jobs. The city's Human Services Agency has started advertising for jobs helping out at hotels and trailer parks, suggesting disaster service workers in those positions may be relieved sooner.

Lambert said in his email that the city is likely to reopen the main branch first, with other select locations, yet to be determined, reopening for business with limited hours of operation thereafter.

While more than a third of San Francisco's library staffers are currently part of the city's disaster recovery workforce, by comparison, only 17% of San Jose's library employees have been deployed as emergency workers. San Jose was able to launch its "Express Pickup" service at libraries on June 15.

"Many of our staff members are continuing to support the emergency operations center on a part-time basis while also supporting the library’s transition to express pickup," wrote San Jose library spokeswoman Elizabeth Castaneda in an email. "First, we are bringing back staff who have yet to be fully assigned; as we expand library services that can be provided within our county public health orders, we will transition other emergency deployed staff back into library service." 

San Francisco librarian McCall said she and her colleagues could be using their training and experience to do more to help those hit hardest by the pandemic, like helping people fill out online unemployment forms or research health information.

"There's this vital thing out there that I'm trained and experienced in that I'm not doing," McCall said.

Before she started disaster recovery work, McCall, who's a children's librarian, was part of a team creating online tutorial videos for kids.

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She is worried about what the ongoing closure of San Francisco’s libraries could mean for young people.

"Kids, when they go into the summer, and if they don't read, their reading skills slide," she said.

Public elementary school teacher and mom Sandra Vega-Martinez said before the pandemic hit, she had come to rely on her local library to keep her students and her own kids happy and busy.

San Francisco teacher and mom Sandra Vega-Martinez with her children Georgia and Austin. The family misses their local library branch. (Courtesy Sandra Vega-Martinez)

"Not being able to go there and interact with the staff and with the kids has I think unfortunately helped some of the kids regress," Vega-Martinez said.

She said she’s always thought libraries were important. But their closure has made her realize how essential they are.

"We don't know what's going on with the schools," Vega-Martinez said. "But at least the library would offer some option for the kids to go back inside and have some sort of interaction."

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The extended closure of the libraries isn't just an issue for children and their families.

"It's been like losing a friend," said San Francisco resident Anne Jones, who's been frequenting the West Portal branch since moving into the neighborhood more than a decade ago. "I can talk to my friends on the phone or text them, but I can't talk to or text being at the library. Just being in the middle of all those books and all the knowledge that's there — I miss that."

The library did issue a public statement earlier this week outlining the beginnings of a plan — but no dates — to start curbside pickup in some locations. A launch date for the service, dubbed "SFPL To Go", has yet to be determined. The Excelsior branch's McCall is excited about the prospect.

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"Right now, my greatest hope is just that we are able to start getting books into kids hands," she said. "Even if it's a very cautious, limited opening of just certain branches in key areas."