Even before they shut down last March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the City of San Diego’s libraries were always about more than books. So when the city announced on March 14 that it would be closing the Central Library and its 35 branch libraries, staff members worked hard and fast to get their many resources to the patrons who could not get to them.
There were “Stay-In-Storytime” readings on Facebook. The library’s website offered online book clubs, archived lectures from its “Opera Insights” series and how-to bike-maintenance and repair videos from the Central Library’s busy Bike Kitchen. If you could get on the internet, you could still get a lot out of your library.
But for the patrons who couldn’t get online without going to the library, the shutdown was also a shut off. Without the library’s digital access, a vital lifeline was suddenly out of reach.
“I think the misconception that a lot of people have is that everyone has a device and everyone can get online. But the digital divide is very much real,” said San Diego Public Library Director Misty Jones. “You have to do everything online now, and we were the place people came to stay connected, to pay their bills, send email, apply for jobs. The homeless population was connected because of us. When the pandemic happened, and we were closed, that was completely cut off. And that was devastating for a lot of people.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic moved our lives to an online world of Zoom classrooms, Facebook Live lectures and email everything, it left a lot of people behind. It didn’t take the San Diego Public Library and the San Diego Library Foundation long to realize that they would have to help close that gap.
Since the shutdown, the foundation has given 240 Chromebooks to students who did not have computer access at home. It has also donated computers to participants in the library’s Career Online High School program and the READ/San Diego adult literacy program, many of whom depended on the library’s dedicated computer labs to do their work.
And when the Central Library and 11 branch libraries opened in October for limited in-person services — including printing, picking up reserved materials and getting or renewing library cards — four of those libraries were outfitted with outdoor computer labs, where socially distanced patrons could check out laptops for two hours per day. The outdoor “Computers in the Courtyard” labs are now offered at the Central Library and nine branch libraries: City Heights/Weingart, College-Rolando, Linda Vista, Logan Heights, Mira Mesa, Otay Mesa-Nestor, Skyline Hills, San Ysidro and Valencia Park/Malcom X.
Patrons can also bring in their own devices and connect to the libraries’ Wi-Fi, which has been expanded to reach beyond the buildings. The Wi-Fi stays on from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
It is all part of the City of San Diego’s SD Access 4 All program, which was established last fall to improve and expand broadband internet access in the city’s lower-income neighborhoods. It also reflects what San Diego’s libraries learned about how patrons used their resources.
When the library began offering contact-free pickup service for online holds in May, Jones and her staff noticed that they were getting huge pickup numbers in northern branches like La Jolla and Carmel Valley, but not-so-huge numbers in places like San Ysidro and Logan Heights. That’s when they realized that not all library patrons used their libraries in the same way.
“Libraries south of the 8 (freeway) are not checking out books as much as they are using the digital resources,” said Patrick Stewart, CEO of the San Diego Public Library Foundation, which provided a few hundred Chromebooks for the outdoor computer-lab program. “They go to the library to go online and connect with the world digitally. They go there to get internet access. With a city as complex and diverse as San Diego is, you have to recognize that the resources to make San Diego a best big city need to be equitably distributed.”
In addition to improving digital equity, the library wants to beef up digital education. They are looking at a partnership with the Parks and Recreation Department to turn recreation centers into education centers. The first phase would be geared toward teaching seniors such basics as how to use computer tablets, how to set up an email account and how to protect their online privacy. Digital-education web tutorials are also an option.
There is also the matter of patrons who do not have computers in their lives but still need what San Diego’s libraries have to offer. Jones wants old-school readers to know that the library is still there for them, too.
“We have been answering the phone since May. You can call any (open) library and they will help you choose books and they will put them aside for you,” Jones said. “We still want to be able to connect with everybody. We really are trying to keep things going as much as we can. Hopefully, we will be able to reopen these doors sometime soon. I’m ready.”