Patrons who reserve books online will be able to pick them up curbside at Berkeley’s libraries — including the North branch pictured above — sometime in mid-to-late June. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Patrons who reserve books online will be able to pick them up curbside at Berkeley’s libraries — including the North branch pictured above — sometime in mid-to-late June. Photo: Nancy Rubin

The Berkeley Public Library is easing back into the physical handling of books after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted its closure more than 10 weeks ago.

Starting today, the library will reopen its book drops for the return of the 100,000 or so items that are currently checked out, said Elliot Warren, the interim library director.

Then in mid- to late June, the library will start offering curbside pickup of books, he said. There are no plans at this time to reopen the branches and let people wander freely through the buildings.

“We miss the community,” said Warren. “Our staff is looking forward to safely providing library services to the extent that we can.”

The use of electronic books has doubled during shelter-in-place

While patrons haven’t been able to check out physical books, that doesn’t mean they haven’t been able to use library resources. The checkout of e-books and films has soared in recent months as people have been sequestered at home. Elliot thinks that way of consuming content will continue even after the pandemic ends.

Checkouts of electronic books for kids have doubled and checkouts for adult e-books have almost doubled, he said. The library also increased the number of films people can check out from Kanopy, a streaming service for independent films and Hoopla, which also streams movies.

The library also introduced a service that has proven popular with parents. Instead of requesting specific books, a parent can now send a message saying, “I have a kid who is interested in science fiction and is 11 years old,” said Elliot. A librarian will then select five books catered to that child’s taste. That service will continue as the library gradually reopens.

“This is an opportunity while we are apart during this social distancing for us to be connected,” he said.

How curbside pickup of books might work

When the library is ready to launch curbside pickup, patrons will be able to reserve books online and specify at which branch they want to pick them up. Those books will be placed in bags with the patron’s name on it, said Elliot.

Library staff will set up tables outside each of the branches. Patrons will be able to line up, respecting social distancing, and give their names. A staffer, wearing a mask and gloves, will then retrieve the bag, said Elliot. The library will extend the amount of time materials are held from a week to 10 days, said Elliot. Pickup will be available during normal library hours.

“It will be a simple process from the community’s perspective with a lot of work to make it happen,” said Elliot.

Patrons won’t be able to reserve new books until the curbside pickup begins, said Elliot. But patrons who already have books on hold will be able to pick them as soon as the service starts.

The news that the library would soon offer some physical book services delighted Daniel Herman, a humanities teacher at Maybeck High School who is fond of the quote that libraries are a “civic miracle.”

“That sounds great,” he said.

The  Tarea Hall Pittman Library, one of Berkeley Public Library’s five branches. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The  Tarea Hall Pittman Library, one of Berkeley Public Library’s five branches. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Herman and his family live near the Tarea Hall Pittman/South Branch on Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Before the pandemic, Herman walked his dog there at least three times a week to drop off or pick up a book. He is constantly doing research and loves that he can get almost any book in the world through an inter-library loan, he said. During the shelter-in-place, he has been keeping a list of books he wants to check out. The number is now 50.

Herman hasn’t been using the library’s electronic resources except to read The Washington Post online.

“I’m an old-fashioned person who prefers books in my hand,” he said.

Dropping off books

The library closed its book drop-off sites on March 17, when the shelter-in-place ordinance went into effect. It extended the due date on all books until July 1, said Elliot.

Starting today, the book drop-off sites will reopen, said Elliot. Since there are about 100,000 items checked out, it will take some time for library staff to reshelve that material. (When news hit that the library would be closing indefinitely, hundreds of patrons rushed to take out books).  The library asks that people do not return tools they have borrowed to the book drops.

Once patrons drop off books, they will be quarantined for 72 hours — the time it takes for the virus to die on a hard surface, according to a study done by the Institute of Museum and Library Studies, he said. Until the returned books are processed, they will still appear on a patron’s record.

The library extended the due date for the 100,000 materials currently checked out to July 1, he said.

The library has been buying new books throughout the pandemic. They are now being delivered and library staff is processing them.

Library workers have been redeployed during the COVID-19 crisis

While the five library branches have been closed, library workers have been working in other city departments, since all city of Berkeley employees are also emergency workers, said Warren. Some library staffers have been helping out in the expanded shower program at Willard and West Campus pools now being offered to those without permanent shelter. Some have been delivering food to at-risk seniors. Some have been working with the department of public health doing COVID-19 contact tracing or answering health-related questions coming in through 311. Others have been working in the office of economic development helping process the thousands of applications from small businesses and arts organizations for funds from the Berkeley Relief Fund.

“I feel we’ve saved lives,” said Elliot.. .. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve been able to do.”

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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 Created California, published in November...