‘We miss you, too’: Local librarians reflect on COVID-19 pandemic

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Eliana Marcu /Staff
Public librarians in Berkeley and Oakland have had to make various adjustments in order to maintain operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic. One way in which some staff have been able to engage the community has been through virtual programming such as cooking classes and financial planning.

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Crazy. Bewildering. Momentous. A “time of great confusion.” These are the words that come to mind for Berkeley and Oakland public librarians when thinking about March 2020, the month that changed their jobs.

Before Berkeley Public Library, or BPL, branches closed down last March, supervising librarian Dan Beringhele said he and his colleagues initiated various cleaning protocols, including cleaning all surfaces around the library. When news came out about the severity of the COVID-19 virus, Beringhele originally believed the library would be closed for a quick two weeks. Those two weeks then turned into three months.

It would not be until mid-June that the majority of Beringhele’s staff could return to the Tarea Hall Pittman South Branch building to carry out modified library services.

From the day libraries closed, Beringhele said he and his team started planning and brainstorming ideas of how they could still serve the community even though buildings were closed.

Beringhele worked on a committee to plan for reopening library branches in addition to instituting the outdoor pickup service that launched in July 2020. Beringhele added that the primary concern of the committee was the safety of staff, with questions such as “How do we keep people apart?” and “How do staff work safely in the building together?” at the forefront of reopening suggestions.

Expanding virtual collections was also a main priority for BPL, according to Beringhele. It is no surprise that among the various hobbies people picked up during quarantine — namely baking sourdough bread, painting and going out for walks, among others — reading was a popular choice.

Berkeley and Oakland public library circulation data prove it.

BPL saw a 50% increase in OverDrive, Berkeley’s digital collection, circulation and a 63% increase in video streaming services, according to BPL spokesperson Aimee Reeder. Additionally, the library’s version of personalized reading suggestions receives more than 300 requests per month from patrons.

There also has been an activation of 12,217 new Oakland Public Library, or OPL, cards since March 2020; a 21% increase in digital material checkouts since before library closure; and a 600% increase in “Book Me!” requests, a personalized reading list service, according to OPL spokesperson Matt Berson and OPL reference librarian Christy Thomas.

While both Berkeley and Oakland libraries have been able to provide community bookworms with reading materials, Thomas said the library is not just about books. It is about the people and the communities they serve as well.

“(An) obvious change in my job is that I don’t work face to face with the public. That was such a big part of my job,” Thomas said. “The library is more than a building with books. Without that community, it’s very changed.”

Subsequently, public librarians and staff had to get creative in order to continue and establish community connections during a time of social isolation and distancing.

Some staff entered the unfamiliar territory of virtual programming. Others found themselves serving the community in person as disaster service workers, or DSW.

“Oakland is a special place because people are proud of their libraries and they are grateful for them. I’m glad we can keep serving,” Thomas said.

‘More than a building with books’

Pete Villaseñor has worked at the OPL for 25 years. Currently, Villaseñor is the manager at the César E. Chávez Branch.

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(Ryan Kendrick/Staff)

The branch, according to Villaseñor, serves the Fruitvale neighborhood in Oakland and a majority of its patrons are Spanish-speaking, hailing from countries such as Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. He noted COVID-19’s significant impact on the community.

“The ZIP code we serve, 94601, had the largest infection rate in the Bay Area for a while, (there was an) explosion,” Villaseñor said.

In a community heavily impacted by COVID-19, the Chávez Branch distributed food in the thick of it.

Last summer, every Tuesday and Thursday, Villaseñor and his colleagues would pack and distribute 1,000 bags of food for a total of 2,000 bags a week to extremely long lines. The Chávez Branch was the largest food distribution site in the entire library system, Villaseñor said.

“We loved doing it. It was just really great that we were able to mobilize to do something like that,” Villaseñor said. “We were able to do it. It was really amazing. People were really grateful and happy.”

On days when they had 20 or 30 meals left over, Villaseñor said he would jump into a book truck and drive a block down to the downtown plaza.

He then would hand out meals to people who happened to be getting off of BART.

“I gave (a meal) to a young man early 20s, and his mom and the mom said (to me), ‘Thank you so much for giving us meals. We were going to go without meals,’” Villaseñor recalled. “They hadn’t eaten since yesterday. (It) hit home.”

While OPL Rockridge Branch manager Sandra Toscano wanted to work and provide aid during the peak of the pandemic, she had reservations and concerns about how it would affect her and her family’s health and safety.

When the library shut down last year, she was told that as a city worker, Toscano could be called in as a DSW.

Facing an internal battle, Toscano said she was “kind of hoping” she would not be called in, as both her husband and son have underlying conditions.

“Do I use that to stay home and protect them?” Toscano asked herself at the time. “But I want to be part of the community. I want to do my part. So many people are in need. It was all these things going on, and I’ve always been interested in participating … in organizations that help the community.”

In May 2020, Toscano got the call. From May to October, Toscano went from providing Federal Emergency Management Agency documentation about COVID-19 testing numbers to working with the city’s homelessness task force.

It was on-the-job training, according to Toscano. Toscano said she remembered thinking that she was over her head at some points.

In the span of a year, Toscano went from managing one of the smallest branches in the system to serving as a DSW and then being promoted as the branch manager of the largest branch in Oakland.

“All these hats that, you know, looking back, I don’t know how I did it. But I was able to make the transition from one to the next to the next,” Toscano said. “COVID wasn’t going to win, at least the way I thought about it. It wasn’t going to take away the things I enjoyed about life. Somehow, I was going to make this work and go to work.”

Sierra Gribble, a Berkeley library specialist also wore many hats throughout the past year. Having served as a DSW for a whole year, Gribble said she has no idea when she will return to her library job.

Although it has been a while since she last put on her library hat, Gribble said her work at 3-1-1, the city’s customer service phone line, is a “microcosm” of library work. She answers phone calls and questions about COVID-19 testing sites and vaccinations.

“(The) library is all about connecting people with all sorts of resources, but now it’s all just COVID,” Gribble said. “I’m trying to stay in the moment and stay open and flexible, and it feels really good to be doing what I’m doing.”

Miles away on Zoom, closer together during online events 

While some librarian staff were on the ground working as DSW, other staff hunkered down and explored different ways to stay connected virtually.

To make up for lost face-to-face conversations between staff and patrons about book recommendations, staff have been working on BPL’s personalized book picks, according to Heather Cummins, a Berkeley supervising librarian. They also opened up space for local teenagers to submit and publish book reviews through the BPL Teens Review program.

“Public librarianship is a ‘place,’ and that place was no longer there,” Cummins said. “(We) had to figure out how to stay in communication in a way we hadn’t before.”

BPL has hosted more than 100 virtual programs with more than 2,000 participants since August 2020, according to supervising librarian Perlita Payne. Resume writing, cooking classes, book club meetings and financial planning, among others, have been offered to the community.

An unexpected result of virtual programming has been the wide scope of people the libraries reach.

Villaseñor added that he has had international participants attend his book clubs.

“There’s no limitations right now,” Villaseñor said. “That’s really beautiful. … (It’s) something magical that never would’ve opened up before.”

Reading ahead

On March 31, Alameda County received the long awaited announcement that it was cleared to enter the orange tier of the state’s reopening system. Moving to the orange tier allowed various businesses to increase their indoor capacity among other expanded services.

That same day, OPL announced its indoor express service. According to a library press release, patrons now have access to limited browsing, checkout of materials and various computer services. To utilize the service, face masks and social distancing are required.

Currently, there is no time frame on when community rooms and in-person events can be accessed by patrons, according to Berson.

“(The) goal is to do it as soon as it’s safe and we can abide by the health regulations, but those are really going to dictate the pace of that,” Berson said.

For BPL, Reeder said a staff team has been working with labor partners and the city of Berkeley to plan a phased reopening. However, as of press time, BPL has not announced a similar service such as OPL Express.

News of when the library could “return to normal” is uncertain for both OPL and BPL, Thomas said. What is certain is that both community members and library staff look forward to the day they can gather together safely.

“I have a lot of conversations where people tell me how much they miss the library … and I tell them, ‘We miss you, too,’” Thomas said.

Contact Julie Madsen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Julie_Madsen_.