The last of San Francisco’s public libraries finally reopened this week near Lake Merced, but not without its fair share of challenges.
“There was so much to do, we couldn’t even walk around the branch. There were boxes stacked to the ceiling and bins of books we needed to process. We had tables everywhere,” said Briana Campbell, a library page at the branch, which reopened Tuesday. “It has been hectic the last few weeks; it felt like moving.”
The city’s library system, which encompasses 28 locations, closed in-person services in March 2020 and has gradually been reopening its doors in recent months. But a hiring freeze during the pandemic combined with turnover during a chaotic year has created a wide gap in staffing needed to support a full-system recovery.
“There are about 81 vacancies in the branches alone,” said city librarian Michael Lambert. “That really impacts our ability to have hours of operation and hours of service.”
San Francisco Public Library has 141 employment openings currently, which comprises about 15% of its workforce, according to Lambert.
While centers were closed, nearly two-thirds of The City’s library workers were relocated and reassigned to emergency COVID-19 relief services, ranging from staffing shelter-in- place hotels for homeless residents to contact tracing.
Fifteen of those employees are still deployed on long-term contracts for emergency services as the pandemic continues to linger in San Francisco. But many have returned to their regular day jobs in the library, and are working hard to get things back into shape while awaiting for vacancies to be filled.
During the pandemic, Campbell was placed in different emergency roles around The City, including working at food pantries and the Moscone Center vaccination site. But in recent weeks, she was among the tight-strapped library workers gearing up for the final library reopening this week.
“We need people. We have two days of the week where we are closed because we need more processing time so we can open the amount we are,” said Campbell of the Merced branch. “We’re a really small branch.”
Merced is not yet operating at its pre-pandemic hours, like most of the branches. The Mission branch will remain closed for renovation. Although the Main Library is expected to resume full hours after Labor Day, other branches will have to wait until staffing increases to assist with processes and other on-the-ground labor.
Bringing more libraries back to full-service hours is essential to resuming services like digital literacy for adults, and providing technology such as Wi-Fi and printing services, which many low-income San Francisco residents rely on.
“The hardest thing (about providing services during the pandemic) was not being able to offer internet. So many people rely on the library for connectivity and printers, scanners,” Lambert said. “They were shut out until we started resuming services.”
Although the libraries offered curbside pick-up during the pandemic, numbers show that patrons want an in-person experience and are more likely to utilize services if they can walk indoors.
“Whenever we transition a site from a to-go service to in-person, we see a huge spike in visitorship,” said Lambert. “Last week we had 1,130 people per day in the main branch, and we had 3,225 people in other branches. This is significantly higher than what we saw with only the front-door service.”
Despite the big lift that came with the reopening this week, Campbell is happy to be back in the library.
“They didn’t have enough work for us at the libraries so we were getting moved around a lot,” she said. But being back on Monday, she continued, “we had some of our regular patrons show up who were excited to be back and see our doors open. It was really chill.”
Lambert sees the staffing gap as an opportunity to grow and usher the city’s libraries into their next chapter, one that will eventually have in-person programming returned as well as a continuation of online services and programs that were created during shelter in place.
“We are excited to add some new talent to our ranks,” he said, “and reward people who worked their way up.”