How the pandemic transformed San Francisco libraries


Millions of fewer books have been borrowed from public libraries in San Francisco due to the pandemic. According to annual circulation data from the San Francisco Public Library, total circulation fell 23% in fiscal 2021 – a period from July 2020 to June 2021. Much of that decline was in physical records , which were not available during pandemic lockdowns.

In March 2020, all branches of the library closed their doors to the public. They remained closed until August 2020, when they began offering a door-to-door pickup service where members could pick up physical documents requested in advance. It was not until May 2021 that libraries started allowing visitors to buildings – a moment of celebration for both members and staff. Nonetheless, members were encouraged to make short visits. The library even removed furniture so people wouldn’t sit down to read.

With all library buildings closed for months, cardholders were unable to borrow books, magazines, DVDs, and other physical items. As a result, fiscal year 2021 saw an unprecedented 64% drop in the circulation of physical objects. Digital broadcasting, meanwhile, increased 29% to over 6 million, surpassing physical broadcasting for the first time. Digital equipment, such as e-books, audiobooks and streaming content, was available on loan throughout the closures.

But an annual increase of 29% is nothing new. Since 2017, digital distribution has increased from 25% to 31% each year. Physical circulation, meanwhile, began to decline steadily in 2012, dropping about 5% each year. This continued until the pandemic hit and physical circulation fell 23% in fiscal 2020, which included the first three months of lockdown, and 64% in 2021.

These trends have resulted in the library’s collection becoming more digital over the years. According to city librarian Michael Lambert, in 2019 – the last fiscal year unaffected by the pandemic – the collection comprised roughly two-thirds of physical material and one-third of digital content. Today it’s about 50-50, Lambert said.

Physical circulation is expected to approach pre-pandemic levels as the library brings back its opening hours. Before the pandemic, the city had 28 library branches open every day of the week. These days, although all locations are open, they operate at limited times and not all are open every day. According to Lambert, they are currently operating at 85% of the hours before the pandemic.

Branches that reopened earlier tended to see less decline in physical traffic. Among branches that resumed in-person services in 2020, most experienced year-over-year declines of less than 50%, compared to declines of 70% or worse in branches that reopened in Canada. 2021.

But even among the branches that reopened earlier, some recovered faster than others. The main branch and Excelsior were the first to resume in-person services, but traffic in 2021 at the main branch was 51% lower than the previous year, compared to 33% lower at the Excelsior location. The location with the smallest drop was in the Marina (25% drop), which reopened a month after Excelsior and Main.

These differences can be explained by the varying effects of the pandemic on neighborhoods and the level of comfort of residents returning to indoor activities. For example, Lambert recalls visiting the Chinatown library in mid-November and seeing a full adult reading room but an empty children’s section. He believes this is because children are not yet fully immunized and children in the area tend to visit the library with their grandparents who are more likely to get sick from the virus. Data from the Chinatown branch shows circulation fell 54%, despite offering pickup services for more than half of the fiscal year.

According to Gregory Gilpin, a professor at Montana State University who has studied the value of public libraries, the loss of library services can take a toll on nearby residents. An article he published earlier this year found that increased use of public libraries – which includes borrowing, visits, computer use, and program participation – translates into higher test scores for children from neighboring school districts. According to Gilpin, a decrease in library use would have a similar effect in the opposite direction: lower student achievement.

Gilpin also found that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are at greater risk of education loss due to library closures. “Children from lower socio-economic classes are more affected during closings (of the public library) than students from higher socio-economic classes. It’s very intuitive when you think of who has transportation issues. If a student has to walk a quarter-mile more to access their library, it puts them at a disadvantage, ”said Gilpin.

Lambert, the librarian of the city of San Francisco, hopes to see more than a rebound in traffic but also a resumption of programs. Before the pandemic, the library ran thousands of programs, ranging from storytime gatherings for kids to finance and career-related workshops for adults. But library closings have meant virtually all programs have taken place during the pandemic, leading to a sharp drop in the number of programs. In 2019, the library had over 13,000 youth programs and 5,500 adult programs. In 2020, those numbers have fallen to about 7,700 youth programs and 4,300 adult programs, a decrease of 41% and 22%, respectively. And 2021 was even worse: only 798 programs for young people and 706 for adults were organized.

According to Lambert, the events are a vital part of the library and bring together thousands of community members. Before the pandemic, total annual attendance was over 500,000, which the library hopes to see in the near future by embracing hybrid in-person and virtual programming.

“(The library) isn’t just about books. We are focused on promoting community, creating shared experiences and bringing people together, ”Lambert said.

Nami Sumida is a San Francisco Chronicle data visualization developer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @namisumida



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