Berkeley Public Library. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Update, March 17: Because of the shelter-in-place order, all library book drops will be closed. Patrons should just keep their checked-out books at home. All fines will eventually be waived. Librarians will not be responding to phone calls and email responses may be delayed.

Original story: The Berkeley Public Library, which serves thousands of patrons each day, including many who are unhoused, will shut down Monday to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The length of the closure of the five branches is undetermined.

The Board of Library Trustees met in an emergency session Saturday and voted unanimously to authorize the library director to decide when to shut down. After the meeting, Elliot Warren, the interim director, decided that would happen Monday, March 16.

“There’s obviously interest, you can hear, from the board in moving quickly,” said Warren after the meeting. “Libraries are closing Monday in Oakland. The libraries in San Francisco have closed. Santa Clara, Los Gatos — communities all around the Bay Area are closing. Staff and I are concerned about the public’s as well as our own health.”

While the downtown and other branches will be closed to the public, most staff will continue to work on site. The library has a rich collection of electronic resources from e-books to audiobooks, as well as online newspapers, magazines and databases. Staff will work on getting the word out about those resources, as well as developing mechanisms to help patrons navigate the online options, he said. The library will also increase those holdings.

“The Library is purchasing additional e-book and e-audiobook licenses daily and Kanopy, our streaming service of independent films, is offering a number of films that will not be charged towards patrons’ limits during the course of the crisis,” Warren told Berkeleyside by email. “We will be examining increasing limits on each of our online resources to accommodate increased use.”

Many patrons call the library daily to ask for reference and other help and those services will continue.

One change already made is to allow BUSD students to use their BUSD cards as library cards. That way they don’t have to come to the library to get a card to access material.

The library will still accept book returns. Books that have been checked out will automatically renew up to two times as long as no other patron is waiting for it. The library will also extend the timeframe for materials on hold so patrons can get the items they have been waiting for.

“We know how important the library’s services are for everyone and we are dedicated to providing the appropriate level of services despite the facility closures,” said Warren.

Staff will work out the many outstanding details and will communicate procedures to the public, said Warren.

The Central Branch of the Berkeley Public Library was busy on Saturday, March 14. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Many patrons using the library on a rainy Saturday said their lives will be more difficult without library access.

Cortez Harmon, who has lived in Berkeley since 1967, said he has been coming in every day since September. He fills out product surveys for which he gets paid. He also charges his phone. He is staying with a friend and doesn’t think he can work from there.

“It will be a hardship for me,” said Harmon. “I look forward to coming. It’s quiet.”

Kevin Miller said he comes every day and looks for work online and also looks for investment ideas for his pension. Now he will have to go to a coffee shop. He will have to spend money and won’t be able to stay as long.

Liz Cara and Maggie Verdier had heard rumors the library might close so they came to the Central Branch in the afternoon to stock up on books. Cara said she was concerned about the impact of the closure on people who don’t have many places to go. That’s been hard to assess as information about the threat of the spread of coronavirus keeps changing.

“You don’t know if they are overreacting or underreacting,” said Cara.

Other patrons thought if any place could stay open it would be the library because people can spread out and use the self-checkout machine.

Members of the library board expressed concern that shuttering the branches will impact the neediest. They suggested Warren reach out to Berkeley’s shelters and its homeless services staff to discuss how repercussions might be mitigated.

“The library is an important place of refuge for our homeless population,” said Sophie Hahn, a library board member and a city councilwoman. “The closure of our libraries for most of our patrons means they go home. For others it means they go back to an unsheltered environment day and night.”

Warren said the library would continue to offer free wireless internet access in front of the Central Branch. He said the library would also pay for a portable toilet and hand-washing station for the front as there is a dearth of public bathrooms downtown.

Warren said the decision about when to reopen will depend on the orders from Berkeley’s public health officer.

“We all really hope this won’t last long,” said Warren by email. “All of the Library’s staff are dedicated to serving the community and we will be very happy when our facilities can be reopened to the public!”

The Central branch will be open Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...