Oakland Public Libraries Are Closed, But Still Serving Us in the Pandemic: What About this Summer?

A image of the outside of a white and orange library in Oakland.
Dimond Branch Library of the Oakland Public Libraries. Photo by Khai Pham.

Update: Starting Friday, June 19, several branches of the Oakland Library started offering sidewalk pickups.

Have you missed being able to go into your local library? For over two months, children, teens, and adults have not been able to physically visit local libraries. Young children haven’t been able to go to the library to hear a story or sing songs together. Students haven’t been able to go to the library for programs and to have a space to do homework, such as in the TeenZone. And, no one has been able to physically visit the library to browse through the stacks for a good book, magazine, newspaper, or DVD, or to chat with a librarian, library aide, or other library user.  

According to Matt Berson, Oakland Public Library (OPL) Public Information Officer, in-person contact with library patrons is something that library staff members value a great deal. Although they have answered thousands of questions by phone, email, Twitter, and Facebook, “Communication with the community, in person, is the thing I think we’ve been missing the most,” Berson said.  

Despite the closure of libraries, OPL has continued to offer services online. For example, although people can no longer reserve a hard copy book or DVD and go into the branch library to pick it up, the usage of digital services has gone up quite noticeably, according to Berson. In comparison with January/February, in March/April, checkouts for Hoopla (for audiobooks, e-books and downloads) were up 39% and checkouts for Overdrive (for e-books and audiobooks) were up 25%. In addition, reference librarians have answered over 2,000 questions through OPL’s help email, eanswers@oaklandlibrary.org.   

OPL librarians have also been providing online storytelling sessions, which they have taped and posted on Facebook and You Tube. Although most of these sessions are in English, some are in other languages, such as Spanish, Mandarin, and Arabic. 

According to Berson, OPL is evaluating website platforms that will seamlessly integrate non-English languages. “We are making a considerable effort to offer more translated webpages, resources and social content,” he added in an email. Also, OPL is working to translate hard-copy outreach materials in the languages spoken by community members of a given branch library.

Although library services have gone online, the feedback appears to have been positive. “I haven’t received anything negative via our social channels, or through my email inboxes,” said Berson. He added, “More, it’s just like, ‘Man, I really miss you guys’ and ‘I’m sad you’re closed, but you’re doing the right thing, in terms of not grouping people together in order to stop the spread. We can’t wait for you to re-open again.’”  

OPL Staff Members Working in Disaster Relief Service During Pandemic

A man wearing a mask holds up the peace sign as he's handing out food bags from a library branch in East Oakland.
Employees of the Oakland Public Library hand out meals for the public provided by World Central Kitchen at the 81st Avenue branch of the Oakland Public Library on May 8, 2020. Photo by Doug Zimmerman.

According to Berson, 30-40% of permanent OPL staff members have been working on disaster service work during the pandemic. For example, they have been helping with food distribution.

Although many people have access to smart phones, tablets, and/or computers, there are still many people who do not have access or reliable access to the internet. Branch libraries are accustomed to people coming in and using the free WiFi to accomplish a wide range of tasks, from sending emails, to applying for a job, to searching for information for a school assignment. “If you’ve ever gone to Dimond (Branch Library), you know the computer lab’s always full,” said Berson, adding that now that the libraries are closed, people are coming to the outside of the branch libraries to access the WiFi. “It’s a huge issue,” he said, referring to people lacking WiFi access. A supervising librarian contacted T-Mobile and purchased 500 WiFi hotspots, according to Berson. OPL then donated them to Tech Exchange, which made them available to Oakland Unified School District (OUSD).  

With continuing concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, Oakland’s public libraries are likely to remain closed through the summer, Berson said. A big question that many people are asking is, “What will happen in the summer, when children no longer have any kind of school, if the libraries aren’t open?” It has been hard for many students and their families to deal with online learning while schools have been closed. And now, we are facing a summer without in-person summer programs, including summer events at local libraries.  

OPL’s 2020 Continues with Summer Programs and Services

OPL recently announced its summer plans for children, teens, and adults. It includes a Summer Reading Program, with prizes, and Bridging the Learning Gap, which includes some of the offerings listed below and is organized according to age group (children, teens, all ages). 

There is a wide range of prizes for participants of all ages in OPL’s Summer Program. Grand prizes for children include a four-night stay for a family of four at Oakland Feather River Family Camp in summer 2021 and 18 Chromebook laptops (for ages 5-14). Teens can earn points towards winning prizes that include headphones, a Hoverboard, a QKK mini-projector, and a Nintendo Switch Lite. There are also prizes for adults over the age of 18, including gift baskets and gift cards.  

Many of the summer programs and services exist year-round. At the end of the following age-specific resources is information about how to get a library card—library card applications are available in English and four other languages: Arabic, Chinese, Spanish, and Vietnamese. 

Summer Programs and Services for Children include the following:

Summer Reading Programhttps://oaklandlibrary.org/services/cards-and-visiting/summer-opl/kids-summer-reading   

Summer Online Storytime: https://oaklandlibrary.org/events/online-program/online-storytime

Horas de Cuentos Bilingüe (en línea)/Online Bilingual Storytime (Spanish): https://oaklandlibrary.org/events/online-program/hora-de-cuentos-bilinguee-en-linea-online-bilingual-storytime-spanish

Online Play and Learn: https://oaklandlibrary.org/events/online-program/online-play-learn

Summer Programs and Services for Teens include the following:

Summer Program for Teens: Teen Summer Passport: https://oaklandlibrary.org/services/cards-and-visiting/summer-opl/teen-summer-passport

Online TeenZonehttps://oaklandlibrary.org/teens?_ga=2.264223180.1173652139.1590523862-1261361625.1578601086

Teen Pop-Up Crafts at Homehttps://oaklandlibrary.org/teens/events-programs/teen-pop-crafts-home

Healthy Relationshipshttps://oaklandlibrary.org/teens/your-life/mind-body/healthy-relationships-0

Summer Programs and Services for All Ages, Children through Adults, include the following:

Summer Reading Program for All Ages, babies to adults: https://oaklandlibrary.org/news/2020/05/wherever-you-are-join-us-oplsummer

Adult Summer Reading Program: https://oaklandlibrary.org/services/cards-and-visiting/summer-opl/adult-summer-reading

Free Online Tutoring, Homework Help, and Other Academic and Work Help/Tutor.com Ofrece Ayuda Con la Tarea Gratuita: https://oaklandlibrary.org/blogs/childrens-services/tutorcom-offers-free-live-and-one-one-homework-help-students-and-parents

eBooks, Audiobooks, Streaming Videos, Digital Magazines and Newspapers, and eMusic:https://oaklandlibrary.org/online-resources/e-books-and-digital-content

Screen-Free Activities for Family Fun: https://www.oaklandlibrary.org/blogs/childrens-services/screen-free-activities-family-fun

How to Learn at Home During School Closure: https://oaklandlibrary.org/blogs/childrens-services/how-learn-home-during-school-closure?_ga=2.107685634.1681037010.1590511424-2030030752.1582749165

Book Me! (Personalized e-Books and Audiobooks Reading Lists): https://oaklandlibrary.org/online-services/book-me

Free Meal Pick-Up at 3 Branches/Repartición de Comidas Preparadas:

César Chávez Branch Library: https://oaklandlibrary.org/events/cesar-e-chavez-branch/free-meal-pick-reparticion-gratuita-de-comidas-preparadas

81st Ave. Branch Library: https://oaklandlibrary.org/events/81st-avenue-branch/free-meal-pick-reparticion-gratuita-de-comidas-preparadas

West Oakland Branch Library: https://oaklandlibrary.org/events/west-oakland-branch/free-produce-pick-reparticion-gratuita-de-alimentos

OPL Online Programs and Resources:

You may need an OPL library card to access some of the services, but it’s easy to apply for one online.  Application forms are available in five languages: 

English, Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and Vietnamese. Go to the OPL Home Page for links to the many programs that the library offers: https://oaklandlibrary.org. The home page is also available in Chinese and Spanish.

A previous version of the article stated that T-Mobile donated 500 WiFi hotspots. The WiFi hotspots were purchased by the Oakland Public Libraries.

Author Profile

Katharine Davies Samway has lived in Oakland for over 35 years. She is a long-term educator — a teacher, a researcher, a teacher educator, a professor of education.

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