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California is open. Why aren’t San Francisco’s libraries?

California’s grand reopening on Tuesday allowed its pandemic-ravaged people to return in droves to places missed from loving to less: cafes and booths, restaurants and gyms, amusement parks and industrial parks.

But an important public space remains quieter than usual for many communities: the library. This is a particular problem for neighborhoods that depend on it not only for books and other media, but also for access to computers, the Internet, public services, and job vacancies.

The San Francisco library system is a stark example of the slowness with which this service has emerged from closings caused by the coronavirus. While the city’s main library reopened last month and resumed regular operations on the upper floors on Monday, most of San Francisco’s 27 branch libraries will remain closed.

“We heard that June 15 is basically the day everything opens in California,” library attorney Peter Warfield said at a recent meeting of the city’s library board. “What about the library? I believe the library is an essential service and should be open to full service in all of its activities. “

Only two of the San Francisco branch libraries, Chinatown and Mission Bay, are open to personal browsing and bounce service, which allows limited daytime and computer use upon reservation. Library officials say they plan to offer limited hours and services in four more branches next week, another six in July and all branches by “early fall,” although they warned that reopenings are staffing dependent and subject to change. Around half of the city’s branches currently offer a “to go” service where customers can request and pick up materials and print jobs. In the coming weeks, the offer on the roadside will be expanded.

Editing of the Chronicle

But the system has yet to provide “one minute” of evening shifts, Warfield noted, and the closed branches leave most of the city’s residents unable to conveniently access library computers and Internet connections, which could connect people to jobs and services as the city goes out Pandemic and the associated economic and employment decline. “We have a lot of people struggling with unemployment,” Alex Walker, an adviser to MP Phil Ting, told commissioners Thursday. “I… have helped hundreds of voters and see the digital divide – people who have internet access at home and people who don’t. It’s really important to have more public computers. “

City Librarian Michael Lambert said Thursday’s relaxation of state occupational safety regulations could help the system “accelerate the restoration of service, including more access to our computers.” However, library officials say the reopening has been hampered by staff shortages as over a fifth of the system’s posts are vacant due to the brain drain or redeployment of library staff to contact search and other pandemic services. City libraries were also repurposed last year to support some of the children hardest hit by another service that is notoriously slow to resume, public schools.

San Francisco’s closed libraries are certainly not alone. According to a survey by the American Library Association, over 80% of the country’s public libraries were closed or only offered roadside services last month, although more than a third reported plans to reopen this month or next. Libraries in the Bay Area suburbs also generally have limited hours and services.

However, there is a nearby example that San Francisco should emulate: Oakland, which restored pre-pandemic hours and services to its main and branch libraries starting June 15. Like schools, libraries should lead California reopening rather than abandoning the public that depends on them behind it.

This comment is from the editors of The Chronicle. We invite you to express your opinion in a letter to the editors. Please submit your letter using our online form: SFChronicle.com/letters.

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