Employees shortages hamper San Francisco Public Library reopenings

By Sydney Johnson

Examiner employee author

The last San Francisco public library finally reopened near Lake Merced this week, but not without some challenges.

“There was so much to do, we couldn’t even walk around the branch. There were boxes that were piled to the ceiling and boxes of books that we had to process. We had tables all over the place, ”said Briana Campbell, a library page for the branch, which reopened Tuesday. “It’s been hectic in the last few weeks; it felt like I was moving. “

Library page Briana Campbell, left, and librarian Laura chat at the main counter of the Merced branch of the San Francisco Public Library on Wednesday, August 18, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume / The Examiner)

The city’s library system, which has 28 locations, closed its presence in March 2020 and has gradually reopened its doors over the past few months. But a hiring freeze during the pandemic combined with turnover in a chaotic year has created a large staffing gap required to support a full system recovery.

“There are around 81 vacancies in the branches alone,” says City Librarian Michael Lambert. “That really affects our ability to have up and service hours.”

According to Lambert, the San Francisco Public Library currently has 141 vacancies, which makes up about 15% of the workforce.

While the centers were closed, nearly two-thirds of the city’s library staff were relocated and assigned to COVID-19 emergency services, which range from filling hotel accommodations for homeless residents to contact tracing.

Fifteen of those employees are still on long-term emergency medical contracts as the San Francisco pandemic continues. But many have returned to their regular library jobs and are working hard to get things back in shape while they wait for vacancies to be filled.

During the pandemic, Campbell was assigned to various emergency functions around the city, including working in pantries and the Moscone Center’s vaccination center. But for the past few weeks she has been one of the tense library staff preparing for the library’s final reopening this week.

“We need people. We have two days a week that we’re closed because we need more processing time so we can open the amount we have, ”said Campbell of the Merced store. “We are a really small branch.”

Library site Briana Campbell assembles packages of books in the Merced branch of the San Francisco Public Library.  (Kevin N. Hume / The Examiner)

Library site Briana Campbell is assembling book packages at the San Francisco Public Library Merced branch on Wednesday, August 18, 2021. (Kevin N. Hume / The Examiner)

Merced is not yet up and running like most stores in the pre-pandemic times. The mission branch remains closed for renovation work. Although the main library is expected to be full again after Labor Day, other branches will have to wait for staff to be replenished to help with processes and other on-site work.

To get more libraries back to full service, it is important to resume services like adult digital literacy and to provide technologies like Wi-Fi and printing services that many low-income San Francisco residents rely on.

“The hardest part (in providing services during the pandemic) was not being able to offer internet. So many people rely on the library for connectivity and printers and scanners, ”said Lambert. “They were closed until we started to resume service.”

Although libraries offered roadside collection during the pandemic, the numbers show that users want a more personalized experience and are more likely to use services if they can walk indoors.

“Whenever we switch a site from a to-go service to a personal service, we see a huge increase in traffic,” said Lambert. “Last week we had 1,130 people a day in the main branch and 3,225 people in other branches. That is significantly higher than what we only saw with the door-to-door service. “

Jennie Quinn and her granddaughter Ella Koepsell search the new book section of the Merced branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

Jennie Quinn and her granddaughter Ella Koepsell check out the new book department in the San Francisco Public Library Merced branch on Wednesday, August 18, 2021.

Despite the big boost that came with the reopening this week, Campbell is excited to be back at the library.

“They didn’t have enough work for us in the libraries, so we moved a lot,” she said. But when she got back on Monday she continued, “We had some of our regulars who were excited to be back and see our doors open. It was really cool. “

Lambert sees the staffing gap as an opportunity to grow and usher the city’s libraries into their next chapter, one that will eventually regain personal programming as well as the continuation of the online services and programs created during the on-site placement.

“We look forward to adding some new talent to our ranks,” he said, “and rewarding people who have worked their way up.”

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