Bay Area is chilling online with libraries like never before

“It’s a good deal, that library card. It’s a good bargain," says Michelle Jeffers, San Francisco Public Library spokesperson.  

With public libraries closed due to coronavirus restrictions, Bay Area online library use is at an all-time high and people are discovering this bargain in droves. 

Libraries shuttered about six weeks ago when stay-at-home orders began, but you can still check out e-books, listen to audiobooks, stream movies and TV shows, play music, or partake in online story hour through local library branches. 

Oakland Public Library says they saw 2,000 more e-book checkouts in March than in February. But it doesn't end there.

In San Francisco's system, checkout of e-books and e-audioboks have increased 51% over the last month and a half since they closed March 14, Jeffers said.

San Jose Public Library has seen its e-book checkouts double over the same time period.   

Digital checkouts at the Berkeley Public Library are up from 40,000 to 66,000 a month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. 

The key to this wonderful world of completely free content is a library card. When the pandemic lockdowns began, libraries scrambled to provide online enrollments to obtain an e-library card so that everyone could have access. 

"You can automatically get an e-library card. We just made that happen really quickly," said Jeffers. SFPL has activated 3,197 of these temporary accounts since the shutdown took effect. 

"We're happy that our customers are able to connect," said San Jose library spokesperson Elizabeth Castaneda. Patrons have given plenty of positive feedback. Many who never had library cards before are experiencing a new way to literacy and learning, she said. 

"People were excited," Castaneda said. There have been 5,000 people who have enrolled to get their e-library card in San Jose since March 17. She says pre-pandemic a lot of library patrons didn't even access online materials and were only going for physical copies of books. "They appreciate that we have the online collection." 

San Jose's e-collection includes Hoopla for streaming movies, shows, and music online. In addition to electronic books and audiobooks, it also includes comics. Students have access to There, Castaneda said a "real-life" tutor can help them with homework.

With all the extra time many have while staying home, is a tool for expanding professional skills or maybe even learning a new skill.

"There are tutorials on how to achieve that; learn a new language," said Castaneda, noting that there certainly seems to be more time to browse.  

San Francisco has Hoopla too, but film buffs are sure to love Kanopy, another streaming movie platform they offer that includes selections from the Criterion Collection, which focuses on classics, arthouse films and other movies touted by critics. 

"It's films you say to yourself, 'I always think I need to see that' A lot of people are chilling at home. Your library is always there. [You might think] I have Netflix, but I need something else,' said Jeffers. "What does the library have for free?"   

Kanopy has a wide range of movies, independent film, documentaries and mainstream releases. The library has increased the credits patrons are allowed from 10 to 15 a month since the pandemic began. Some of the material is available credit free. 

The harsh reality is the coronavirus pandemic isn't simply a time to veg-out on movies and content. Unemployment has surged, leaving job seekers searching for information and assistance. This is another need that libraries are serving remotely. 

"There’s a lot of questions around eviction moratoriums," said Oakland Public Library spokesman Matt Berson. Since that library system closed March 16, 676 people have signed up through their online library card registration. 260 library accounts have been renewed. Berson says they've fielded 1,450 questions online through their e-answers platform.

"The librarians have access to the information. [If someone says] 'Hey, I just lost my job,' our reference staff knows where on the city website the patrons can go," says Berson. 

"We just launched a Virtual Lawyers in the Library program. You can meet with a volunteer lawyer and it's now moved online," said Berson. "People have questions about ordinances. They can guide them in the right direction. Someone could be saved from being displaced." 

The legal program is available by appointment and co-sponsored by Alameda County Bar Association and Legal Access Alameda.   

San Francisco's virtual library includes an events calendar that offers assistance on topics such as resume writing. They even provide coaching for job interview essentials where a representative from the Employment Development Department hosts an online event on Zoom. These programs are available with a reservation.

San Jose Library's Career Online High School offers adults the opportunity to earn an accredited high school diploma and a career certificate. "100 adults are projected to complete the program by this summer," Castaneda said. They made a push to get the word out in an email newsletter and on social media. "We noticed that the day we put the word out, 41 people signed up to participate." The enrollment they saw that day was something they've never seen before.  

There's also a push to break language barriers in San Jose. From their homepage, you can chat with a librarian in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Chinese. Before the pandemic, only English was available. "We knew we needed that. We plan to continue," says Castaneda. 

"We've recorded 60 story time stories in four different languages; English, Hindi, Vietnamese and Spanish," Castaneda says.

And what is a library without story times and book clubs? 

Last week, during what was National Library Week, SFPL held their book club online for the first time. Southern California author Carrie Vaughn joined an engaging discussion on Zoom where she talked about her inspiration for her novel, Bannerless, which is eerily dystopian and set in California.