Libraries in the Time of COVID

Sacramento Public Libraries

Update to this story: Sacramento Public Library will reopen 14 locations to the public on Nov. 5: Belle Cooledge, Colonial Heights, Elk Grove, Isleton, Martin Luther King Jr., Nonie Wetzel Courtland, North Highlands-Antelope, Rancho Cordova, Rio Linda, Robbie Waters Pocket-Greenhaven, Southgate, South Natomas, Sylvan Oaks and Walnut Grove. Three more locations will open on Nov. 12: Arcade, Arden-Dimick and Carmichael. Patrons may visit the library for browsing and computer use for up to one hour. Most locations will operate Tuesday–Saturday  10 a.m.–6 p.m. Isleton, Nonie Wetzel Courtland and Walnut Grove hours are Tuesday–Saturday from 1 to 6 p.m.

Libraries provide a community with far more than books. They are places where patrons can search for a job, sing with their toddler, access the internet, learn a new skill and apply for a passport. So when the pandemic forced the Sacramento Public Library to shutter its 28 locations and cancel all in-person programming, it felt like a “gut punch” for executive director Rivkah Sass. “Especially right now, we know how much people need us, so to not be able to open our doors, I feel pain about it, she says.

Almost immediately after the shutdown began, staff began brainstorming how they could continue to serve the public through online programming and other creative services. From virtual storytimes for youngsters to teen anime trivia sessions to Zoom book club discussions, librarians have created a space online for patrons to gather and interact with one another. “We are about connectionthat’s what libraries do,” says Sass. “I am literally in awe of our staff who are coming up with amazing programming ideas and delivering them andI think, really making a difference.”

Library branches have also designed a system for safe curbside pickup of books and other materials requested online. (Returned items are quarantined for 96 hours before returning to circulation.) And, since readers can no longer peruse the racks themselves, staff have launched a “personal shopping” program where librarians hand-select books and other media based upon a patron’s specific interests.

In spite of having to halt in-person events, the library has successfully lured some famous faces to participate in virtual programs, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who attracted around 550 participants to her online talk. “We couldn’t have fit that many people in the galleria, so that was kind of magical,” says Sass. “I love that we’re getting these big-name authors.”

The community response to the library closures has been significant, especially in terms of donations. During the Big Day of Giving, the annual fundraising event for area nonprofits held in May, Friends of the Sacramento Public Library raised $82,000—up from around $56,000 in 2019. “That was a bright spot for me, knowing that people care enough about the library to share their resources with us at this time,” says Sass.

Libraries will not physically reopen until health authorities give them the green light, but Sass promises her team will be ready when they do. “What is a library? A library is that community space where we can all gather,” she says. “And when we can do it safely, we can’t wait to open our doors.”