Staffing homeless shelters, taking nonemergency calls for the city, distributing food, making wellness checks on fellow citizens: These are just a few of the jobs that public librarians find themselves performing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Of course, being asked to take on tasks that fall outside their traditional job description is nothing new for librarians. But the unprecedented, widespread closure of libraries has made conditions especially ripe for staff redeployment—particularly since many localities consider librarians “city workers.”
“All city and county employees, per our contract, work as disaster service workers when there are big issues like an earthquake or this pandemic,” says Kate Patterson, director of communications for San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). “It’s part of our stated duties. We can be asked to do community outreach, all kinds of things.”
At the moment, some SFPL personnel continue to perform “essential work to maintain our infrastructure and continuity of operations for HR, finance, IT, and facilities, and limited public service (telephone reference, email reference, online library account registrations, virtual story times, etc.),” writes SFPL City Librarian Michael Lambert in an email.
However, others are staffing food pantries, distributing groceries to households in need; aiding the city’s public health department with its communications efforts; or helping the city develop and implement a contact tracing program that will, per a press release from the San Francisco Mayor’s Office, “use technology to dramatically expand San Francisco’s ability to find and connect with individuals who may be close contacts of a person with a confirmed case of coronavirus.”
To Patterson, this is not an example of mission creep. “I don’t think this is a case where we’ve institutionally decided that working at food banks is part of the job description of our staff,” she says. “It’s situational. It’s more about: How do we serve the city at a time of its greatest need?”
Similar thinking is in play at Rochester (Minn.) Public Library (RPL), whose librarians have created and are staffing a nonemergency hotline for questions related to COVID-19. “When we went to a situation where the library was going to be closed, we activated our phone reference and our chat reference [services],” explains Kim Edson, head of reader services. “Within three days, that phone service, which was initially just for library reference, got activated by the city emergency operations plan to provide a COVID-19 line.”
If library staff can’t answer a caller’s question, they consult other entities, such as the city’s public health or parks and recreation departments, for the answer. “I just have to remind [staff members]: ‘Remember our reference interview techniques. You’re not here by yourself; we’re here to support you,’” Edson says. “The work we’re doing is reference service and referral. Libraries are most equipped to research the resources around this, so that aligned very, very clearly.”
In addition, RPL has created a day shelter for people experiencing homelessness. Housed in Rochester’s civic center, which Edson says “has enough space to allow for adequate social distancing,” the shelter serves people who have been displaced due to other facilities’ closures. It is staffed daily by two library workers as well as some security personnel, while food and other resources are supplied by community partners.
At first, not all library staff were eager to work at the shelter, Edson says: But “after the first couple days, the people who were initially nervous about it were like, ‘This makes sense.’ Any library that is serving any kind of urban area is dealing with a homeless population. Librarians are problem solvers. We’ve got a community problem, and we’re here to help solve.”
In addition, Edson says, RPL is “not in a position to pay people to not work.” In other words, though the hotline and day shelter may seem to some to fall outside the bounds of traditional library tasks, they are ways to keep staff gainfully employed while the library is closed to the public. As for staff members who may be in a high-risk category for contracting COVID-19, “for the most part we’re able to find work that matches a person’s comfort zone,” says Edson.
Among the other localities in which library workers have been redeployed:
- Multnomah County, Oregon, where library workers are staffing emergency shelters, supporting county communications, and reaching out to isolated patrons, among other duties
- Spokane, Washington, which has asked library staffers to operate a new helpline aimed at assisting residents and businesses access economic assistance programs
- New Brunswick, Canada, where some librarians have been redeployed to help the Red Cross implement emergency income benefits
- Framingham, Massachusetts, where city workers, including school librarians, are checking on older residents by telephone
For more perspectives on librarians being asked to assume nontraditional tasks, see “Other Duties as Assigned” from American Libraries’ January 2019 issue.