Oakland Public Library staff pose, socially distanced, following the first week of food distribution at the 81st Ave. Branch on May 8, 2020. Over 10,000 meals have been distributed at OPL branches during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Doug Zimmerman

For many Oaklanders, their local public library is a sanctuary, a safe space to disconnect from the rush of the daily grind. Whether you visit the library to get online, attend one of the many monthly events the libraries host, check out books, or join the annual summer reading program, the closure of Oakland’s libraries due to the coronavirus crisis has left a void in our community.

Some goods news: sidewalk pickup will start on June 19 at five Oakland Public Library branches. And though they can’t serve the community like normal these days, many librarians and other staff are finding other ways to help.

Like many other city employees, library staffers have shifted gears and temporarily become Disaster Service Workers, a designation that goes into effect when a local disaster is declared.

“The emergency operation command (EOC) was activated probably around mid-March, and the discussions began on what the needs were,” said Derrick Demay, supervising librarian for Oakland Public Library. “It was determined that food was a need. I was recruited to join the EOC and to figure out how to get some food distributions out to the community.”

Oakland Public Library aides Daniel Jasso-Arteaga and John Wu, organize produce bags at the West Oakland Branch Library on May 21, 2020. Credit: Doug Zimmerman

By early June, Oakland Public Library staff, serving as disaster workers, had distributed 7,889 meals at the 81st Avenue Branch Library, 2,920 meals at the César E. Chávez Branch in the Fruitvale, and 223 bags of produce at West Oakland Branch. Staff also delivered 6,800 meals to seniors through a state program, Great Plates Delivered

Hot meals for the distributions are being prepared by local restaurants and paid for by World Central Kitchen, a food relief organization founded by chef José Andrés, and Eat.Learn.Play, a foundation started by Stephen and Ayesha Curry to support food-insecure Oaklanders during COVID-19.

“The very first food distribution using this model was the 81st Avenue library,” said Demay. “We started off with 400 meals a day, and within a couple of weeks, we were up to 800 meals on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.” 

Starting this week, library staff will be delivering food to 250 seniors, Monday through Saturday. To accomplish the task of handling the massive volume of seniors in need, a handful of staff members sort and bag food while 15 drivers deliver the meals. Other staff members reach out to local seniors directly, to find out if they need services. City workers from other departments are also involved in the effort.

“It’s a lot of physical labor, and a lot of risk,” Demay added. “But of course, we take all the precautions. We even give masks out to the public at our [food distribution] sites. But you know, everyone has asked to have their assignments extended. They want to keep doing it.”

City of Oakland staff, serving as Disaster Service Workers, organize food for the Great Plates Delivered program at the Lakeside Garden Center on May 29, 2020. Credit: Doug Zimmerman

Other staffers continue to provide traditional library services online, even while the physical branches are closed.

One of those staff members is Dorothy Lazard, head librarian at the Oakland Public Library’s History Center. Lazard says the shelter-in-place order has forced many librarians to think differently about the very nature of their work, and “not think of the library as this branch, or that branch, but as one branch.” 

Among other things, Lazard said, librarians have been interacting with the community much more through OPL’s online portal, “which we have had, but it has not been our major point of contact with the public until we were closed. Questions were coming in as they always do, but we were dealing with them electronically.” 

Library staffers have answered at least 3,000 questions submitted through the eanswers@oaklandlibrary.org customer service email. One of the library’s YouTube channels, where librarians offer video storytelling for children three days a week, has gained over 150 new subscribers.

“I know for myself, it took a little getting used to doing your entire job online,” Lazard said. “But we were also able to promote our electronic resources: films, newspaper databases, tutoring services, things like that, that the public still needed to use.” 

Since the shutdown began, the library has seen nearly 1,500 new library card registrations, and about 700 expired accounts have been restored.

Oakland Public Library staff will continue to deliver meals to seniors in need until at least July 10, and food distributions at the 81st Avenue and César E. Chávez branches will also continue through July.

“It was really important to let the public know that the library was going to continue even though our doors were closed,” Lazard said. “We would continue to serve them in whatever way we were physically or technologically able. That was really important.”

Azucena Rasilla is a bilingual journalist from East Oakland reporting in Spanish and in English, and a longtime reporter on Oakland arts, culture and community. As an independent local journalist, she has reported for KQED Arts, The Bold Italic, Zora and The San Francisco Chronicle. She was a writer and social media editor for the East Bay Express, helping readers navigate Oakland’s rich artistic and creative landscapes through a wide range of innovative digital approaches.