San Francisco Public Libraries: What Will Reopening Look Like, and When?

A pedestrian walks by a library book drop box outside of the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library on January 11, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Public libraries are now open for curbside pickup across the Bay Area. But in San Francisco, libraries still remain shut — and curbside pickup for SF library card holders is unlikely to start until at least August.

Hundreds of San Francisco library workers are continuing to work on the front lines of the city's coronavirus relief efforts. Their roles include doing contact tracing, running food banks and helping out at hotels and trailer parks where the city is housing homeless people. If a member of library staff refuses to be deployed as Disaster Service Workers (DSW), they must use their paid time off or sick leave, or take unpaid leave.

KQED spoke with Michael Lambert, the head of San Francisco's public library system, about the roadmap for reopening the library — and returning staffers to their regular jobs.

The latest public statement from the San Francisco Mayor's Office gives permission for the reopening of hair, nail and tattoo salons, museums, zoos and outdoor swimming pools on June 29. Why are we still not seeing libraries on this list?

My department has been working really hard to do our due diligence and make preparations so that we can reopen safely and follow all the latest health guidance. If we're able to reopen sooner, we will, but August may be a more realistic target.

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We have to have a site-specific health and safety plan for any library location that will be resuming public services. The week before last, we submitted our first plan for the main branch of the library. We have some outstanding issues that we have to address. I'm optimistic that we can quickly address those issues, resubmit our plan and hopefully secure approval very soon. Concurrently, we are working on plans for our neighborhood branches.

Can you share a little bit more about the plan, and what are the issues that have made it harder to get this pushed through faster?

Our plan is to do our version of curbside pickup in San Francisco called "SFPL To Go." It's a contact-free service model where patrons will not enter the building, but they will approach our entrances where we will have a table, and library staff there with materials already checked out so people can reserve their items online or they can call in and reserve their items. It'll be a "grab-and-go" kind of model with materials already bagged up and waiting for patrons as they approach the entrance.

A patron leafs through books at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, before the pandemic. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

With the main library site specific plan, some of the questions that have arisen relate to how we're going to ensure proper physical distancing with lines that queue up, ensuring that we're going to have proper signage and make it clear that people have to wear facial coverings.

Another wrinkle about the main library's plan is that we're building in the capacity for it to serve as a cooling center. We're entering another heat wave this week. It's a matter of time before the city may need infrastructure to help shelter people that do not have shelter or provide a cooling center option for people that don't have air conditioning in their home. So we have to flesh out the floor plan and the layout a little bit more for how we would accommodate people in a physically distanced manner.

So people who want to pick up books will remain outside, but the inside will be accessible to those who need help in a heatwave?

It's really a contingency plan. We recognize that libraries are part of the critical social infrastructure in the city and the city's resiliency strategy. We've served as a cooling center in the past. We've served as an air respite center when we've had extreme wildfire events. We just want to be prepared for that contingency down the road if if the need arises. We're planning for potentially accommodating up to 60 people.

How do plans to set up the library as a cooling center fit into the larger plan for indoors at the library? 

My main priority right now is to stand up SFPL To Go and get our front door service going. I have no idea, to be quite honest, when library patrons will reenter our facilities.

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

We do have a phased reopening plan. At a high level, we're thinking about patrons coming in the building down the road and metering access and the number of people that enter the building. We're thinking about floor plans. But that's a longer term proposition. And we're going to proceed very cautiously in the near term because the health and safety of our staff and our patrons is our top priority.

What branches other than the Main branch do you plan to reopen when SFPL To Go launches?

We’ll prioritize equity in selecting which branches to reopen and strive to have broad coverage throughout the city. We’ll also weigh the architectural design of our neighborhood branches to figure out which will be optimal for the SFPL To Go service model. It’s too early to tell which neighborhood branches will reopen first, but we’ll seek to narrow our options in the coming weeks as our planning efforts continue.

Why is it taking so long to get curbside pickup going compared to other cities? Everyone's dealing with the same health and safety issues.

Well, I think there's a couple of reasons why. Number one, the City and County of San Francisco's response to this pandemic has been unique. We are an outlier. San Francisco has fared much better than other cities.

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Number two,  we have also been unique in how much the city has relied on the library's workforce for responding to the public health emergency. We have 40 percent of the library's workforce currently deployed feeding people, sheltering people, serving as contact tracers. There's no other municipality in the country that has activated library personnel on this scale. So that's another huge contingency for me as a department head and thinking about reopening.

I'm working with the city's Department of Human Resources and the Office of the City Administrator to orchestrate the return of library workers to my department from their DSW [Disaster Service Workers] activations. The city will need some of my workforce potentially for the entire upcoming fiscal year. The need for contact tracers, for example, is critical.  So I do envision some of our workforce will continue as disaster service workers for the foreseeable future. But other workers, for example, the ones in the hotels — I'm optimistic that we will get those folks back in the near term. I understand that the Human Services Agency is looking to contract that work out to nonprofits. And once they can have the alternative workforce in place, then my branch managers can come back to the library and help me stand up SFPL To Go.

Why will it take so long to get some library workers back into their regular jobs? Why can't the city find other people to take over for them?

I share my staff's eagerness to reopen and resume library services. But I also understand that the city's priorities overall are to protect vulnerable populations, ensure that there's adequate availability of alternative housing and be prepared for a medical surge. I'm realistic about this upcoming year and the city's need for disaster service workers — I do expect that to continue on some level. What I'm working on is trying to balance reopening libraries with our ability to continue supporting the city's priorities.

Why are librarians deployed in this manner in such high numbers? 

We're a very well funded, well supported library system. We have 28 library locations that were open seven days a week. At the time we closed on March 13, we had the largest idle workforce of any city department. So as the city needed to respond to the public health emergency, we were a logical source of city workers for staffing food pantries and doing community outreach and the myriad roles that library staff are currently serving in.

When was the last time the San Francisco Public Library workforce was deployed on this scale?

It's certainly unprecedented.  We are now in the longest sustained closure of our library system since World War II.

The City of San Francisco is paying the salaries of workers currently serving in DSW roles. But the city is expecting to eventually get reimbursed for much of these salaries by FEMA and other state and federal disaster recovery funds. Does this provide the city with a further incentive to keep library workers serving in emergency roles?

I don't think so. I think the main reason to rely on library workers to perform disaster service work or functions is because there's a need for library staff to help be a part of the city's response. That's the primary driver of why library workers are being called upon. I don't think it's a financial motive.

A library worker who responded to last week's KQED story about the San Francisco library system on social media wrote, "Staff was forced to exhaust their sick pay or not get paid at all if they did not want to go to the front lines." KQED has received similar comments from other library workers. What's your response to this criticism?

I feel for our library staff that were unable to report for their disaster service work reactivations. In those scenarios, people have options. Depending on what their individual circumstances are, they can either use their vacation time or their sick leave.

What happens if someone runs out of leave?

They have the option of using unpaid leave and there may be some other options they have available to them.

The latest word from the city is that library workers are assured salaries through the end of June. Is that date likely to be extended?

Like everyone else, I'm eagerly awaiting an updated communication about the continuance of that benefit, hopefully this week. This affects all city employees, not just the library.

What will happen if employees' salaries are not extended beyond June 30?

I am an optimist. I do not foresee people's pay getting cut off next week and I'm going to do everything in my power to continue providing as robust a service as we can provide to the community under this global pandemic, while also doing right by our staff.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.