Outside the Oakland Public Library’s Dimond branch on Fruitvale Avenue. Credit: Pete Rosos

It’s Monday morning at the Dimond Library, a branch of the Oakland Public Library housed in a white and orange modernist building on Fruitvale Avenue. A table is blocking the front door and safety cones are set up to create a socially distanced line for patrons to wait in. A bench near the entrance is covered with bright green “don’t-sit-here” tape. 

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Dimond branch, one of Oakland’s most popular library locations, was filled with people browsing shelves, using the printer or free wifi, participating in events, or just hanging out. These days the building is empty. The staff are glad to see patrons at the front door to pick up books and other materials, but they keep things moving. The library’s interior is closed to the public. Over the past eight months, the Dimond branch has become less a physical space to dwell in, and more a virtual hub of activity and an exchange point for books and other materials.

“With services being indefinitely suspended, we want to make sure everyone is safe,” said Sarah Hodgson, the Dimond branch’s manager.

Four months after the branch closed in response to the pandemic, it re-opened for sidewalk pick-ups on July 15th. Patrons search for and request materials online or at the door, and librarians bring books and other items to the front for check out.

Rosie Bell, an IT analyst and Dimond District resident for over 20 years, appreciates this neighborhood library branch for its inclusivity. “It’s about everyone feeling welcome. People prefer coming to the Dimond branch and will go out of their way to make it here; anyone can feel comfortable,” said Bell.

Bell used to regularly use the Dimond library for professional resources, including books about business strategy. She said she misses the tactile aspect of visiting. “There’s just something different about being able to physically turn and feel the pages” of a book, she said.

Library staff are keenly aware of this loss, especially when it comes to children’s programming.

“The piece that we’re missing right now is the shared social experience that kids, caregivers, and library staff all love” said Miriam Medow, the Dimond branch’s children’s librarian.

“I miss making connections with people, pointing people to reliable information, health services, and being present,” said Hodgson.

According to Matt Berson, the Oakland Public Library’s spokesperson, each of the city’s library branches has expanded their supply of mobile Internet hotspots during the pandemic. Patrons can check a hotspot out online and pick it up at their neighborhood branch. The library’s digital offerings, which include e-books, audiobooks, and digital magazines, have increased 24% since branches closed in March. Still, more online access can’t really make up for the lack of in-person events.

Some of the programs affected by the Dimond branch closure include a medicinal tea program, a free seed program, story time, a knitting circle, a monthly podcast workshop for teens, family yoga, a video game club, and “Paws to Read,” a reading program connecting therapy dogs with young readers.

Pre-COVID, Dimond library made vegetable, herb, and other seeds freely available. People who took seeds were encouraged to give back seeds from the crops they grew. The Friends of the Dimond Library group, which helps raise money to support the branch, also sold seeds. These seed sharing and gardening programs have been very popular and in lieu of in-person meetings, Rebekah Eppley, a librarian at Dimond branch who oversees the seed library and the medicinal tea program, made a video highlighting edible herbs and plants.

Rebekah Eppley, general librarian at the Oakland Public Library Dimond branch. Nov. 16, 2020. Credit: Pete Rosos

Other programs have tried going fully digital. “Lawyers in the Library,” a program that offers advice about legal issues, has transformed to “Virtual Lawyers in the Library,” and children’s storytime has also moved from library reading rooms to online. Since early spring, Medow, the children’s librarian, has been posting storytime videos to the OPL’s YouTube channel.

Medow, who was first hired by OPL as a library aide when she moved to Oakland from South Bend, Indiana in 2004, said she thinks that the important aspects of storytime can still be achieved through video. “It helps cultivate kids’ love of stories, songs and rhythms, helps them practice their motor skills, and encourages active participation in the joy-making process. This magic all translates to the online format.”

Before the pandemic, Medow said that online accessibility wasn’t one of the program’s priorities, but their online channel has grown in popularity over the past eight months.

Berson said that some of the library’s new outreach strategies will stay in place post-pandemic: “It’s a new way to consider how to engage people when things get back to some semblance of normal.”

In a recent hour-long Zoom nutrition class, one of the library’s new virtual offerings, Ana Pereda and Nina Campbell of Fresh Approach, a Bay Area organization working to improve local communities’ access to healthy foods, talked about why it’s important to eat unpeeled fruits for their fiber, how to create a balanced meal, and how to set reasonable dietary goals.

About 40 people were in attendance and participants interacted with Pereda and Campbell primarily through Zoom chat, asking all sorts of questions about cooking and resources for improving food security.

At the end of the session, Pereda filmed a first person tutorial of herself cooking vegetables in a stainless steel pan. Steam flew into the camera’s lens, fogging it for a moment, but the food looked good. Normally after a cooking demonstration, participants would be able to try samples, but given the circumstances, said Pereda, that will have to wait.