When the coronavirus (COVID-19) struck in March and public libraries nationwide shut down, we wondered what effect it would have on our 400+ strong network of Funding Information Network (FIN) partners. When would they reopen? Would our FIN leads be laid off?
After surveying our networks in July, we were relieved to learn that 78.5 percent of respondents reported no changes to wages or benefits. In the meantime, while libraries remained closed to the public, some librarians have embraced new challenges.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, luckily, many librarians retained their positions, but some have been reassigned as Disaster Service Workers (DSWs) on the frontline. A California law mandates that all public employees are subject to being reassigned during an emergency, kind of like the Army Reserve. The pandemic has caused the largest-ever activation of this force—some 3,000 workers have been reassigned in San Francisco alone, a little less than 10 percent of the city’s workforce.
That’s how Brian Guenther, a senior librarian at the 81st Avenue branch of the Oakland Public Library (one of our newest FIN Leads), found himself packing meals for seniors. Brian is on the quickly formed Food Distribution Team, which administers Oakland’s Great Plates Delivered program for seniors. The city program is coordinated with World Central Kitchen, a food relief nonprofit founded by chef José Andrés, and Eat.Learn.Play, a foundation started by Warriors basketball star Stephen Curry and his wife, Ayesha, to support food-insecure Oaklanders during COVID-19. The organizations purchase meals from local restaurants, which are delivered to a central location and packed into individual meals by DSWs.
Brian spends mornings packing and is then responsible for devising efficient delivery routes. He and some fellow librarians also man phone banks, fielding requests from seniors referred by various agencies. From May 13 to August 1 of this year, 63,152 meals were delivered to seniors. The library also serves as a distribution site where any Oakland resident in need can pick up a meal.
When I asked Brian about his being deployed in a new, totally unrelated job, he responded:
It’s been an experience. Our library director described it as “putting the plane together in mid-flight.” We also have to learn how to fly the plane and teach others to fly at the same time.
There have been plenty of bumps along the way in learning to create a database of people, and be flexible enough to make changes. Plus, everyone on the team is working remotely. But it’s been rewarding. I get to speak to a lot of seniors, and they’re very appreciative of the program.
I feel fortunate to keep working. It’s not library work, but it aligns with the values I bring to library work. I’m still supporting my community, and I’m used to doing a lot of customer service work over the phone.
Brian was initially supposed to perform this duty for two weeks, but his stint was extended to August 14.
Jana DeBrauwere, program manager of Business, Science, and Technology at the San Francisco Public Library, has been working as a contact tracer for five 4-hour shifts a week since April. This position required 20 hours of intensive training and mentoring by experienced tracers from UCSF, some of whom honed their skills during the AIDS epidemic.
A FIN Lead since 2017, Jana is originally from the Czech Republic and speaks Czech, Russian, and Spanish. Her Spanish language skills, acquired in college and from living in Mexico for a while, have really come in handy. Hispanic communities all over the U.S. have been especially hard hit by COVID-19.
When I asked Jana about how she responded to the news that she’d be working as a DSW and how the experience has been going, she answered:
When they said here’s this opportunity for disaster work, do you want to do it? I said yes, because I’m thinking I will learn some new things and I have ... It’s different from library work, because you’re planted in front of a computer all day. That’s been a challenge, since I’m not used to that.
She’s been so good at it, however, that she’s been promoted to a team leader, responsible for eight tracers from various city departments. Librarians’ reference interview skills are a plus in these positions. When a COVID-19 case is identified, the tracers aim to reach out to all the person’s contacts within 24 to 48 hours. They have to ask a series of questions aimed at assessing patients’ living situations and symptoms, and connect them to testing and social services in some cases. Some interviews can take up to an hour, and they must make at least three attempts to contact all those affected.
With the recent surge in cases, Jana has been extremely busy, and her assignment has been extended until the end of the year. She says it’s given her a new appreciation for public services and expressed, “I’m so impressed with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. They’re really on the ball.”
If you’re interested in joining the FIN program or want to learn more about the global network of more than 400 libraries, community foundations, and other nonprofit resource centers, visit our Become a network partner page.