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The pandemic transformed San Francisco’s libraries. This data shows how

The pandemic transformed San Francisco’s libraries. This data shows how

Millions fewer books were borrowed from San Francisco’s public libraries due to the pandemic. According to annual circulation data from the San Francisco Public Library, total circulation fell by 23% during the 2021 fiscal year — a time period spanning July 2020 to June 2021. Much of this decline was in physical materials, which were unavailable during pandemic lockdowns.

In March 2020, all library branches closed their doors to the public. They remained closed until August 2020, when they started offering a front-door pickup service where members could collect physical materials requested in advance. It wasn’t until May 2021 that the libraries started allowing visitors into buildings — a celebratory moment for both members and staff. Still, members were encouraged to keep visits short. The library even removed furniture so people wouldn’t sit down to read.

With all library buildings closed for months, cardholders were unable to borrow books, magazines, DVDs and other physical items. As a result, the 2021 fiscal year saw an unprecedented 64% drop in circulation of physical items. Digital circulation, on the other hand, increased by 29% to reach over 6 million, exceeding physical circulation for the first time. Digital materials, like e-books, audiobooks and streaming content, were available for loan throughout the closures.

But a 29% annual increase is nothing new. Since 2017, digital circulation has increased from 25% to 31% each year. Physical circulation, on the other hand, began to steadily decline in 2012, dropping by about 5% each year. This continued until the pandemic hit and physical circulation fell by 23% in the 2020 fiscal year, which included the first three months of lockdown, and by 64% in 2021.

Physical circulation is expected to grow closer to pre-pandemic levels as the library brings back its operating hours. Prior to the pandemic, the city had 28 library branches open every day of the week. These days, though all locations are open, they operate at limited hours and not all are open every day. According to City Librarian Michael Lambert, they are currently operating at 85% of pre-pandemic hours.

Branches that reopened earlier tended to see less of a decline in physical circulation. Of the branches that resumed in-person services in 2020, most had year-over-year decreases of less than 50%, compared with declines of 70% or worse at branches that reopened in 2021.

But even among the branches that reopened earlier, some have recovered more quickly than others. The Main and Excelsior branches were the earliest to resume in-person services, but 2021 circulation at the Main branch was 51% lower than the previous year, compared with 33% lower at the Excelsior location. The location with the smallest decrease was in the Marina (25% drop), which reopened a month after Excelsior and Main.

These differences may be explained by the varying effects of the pandemic on neighborhoods and the residents’ comfort levels in returning to indoor activities. For instance, Lambert recalls visiting the Chinatown library in mid-November and seeing a full adult reading room but an empty children’s section. He thinks this is because children are not yet fully vaccinated and children in the area tend to visit the library with grandparents who are more likely to be at risk of getting sick from the virus. Data from the Chinatown branch shows circulation dropped by 54%, despite offering pickup services for over half the fiscal year.

According to Gregory Gilpin, a professor at Montana State University who has researched the value of public libraries, the loss of library services can have damaging effects on nearby residents. A paper he published earlier this year found that increases in public library use — which include borrowing, visitation, computer use and program attendance — translate into higher test scores for children in nearby school districts. According to Gilpin, decreases in library use would have a similar effect in the opposite direction — a decline in student achievement.

Gilpin also found that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more at risk of education loss as a result of library closures. “Lower socioeconomic class children are more harmed during (public library) closures than students of higher socioeconomic class. That’s very intuitive when you think of who has transportation issues. If a student has to walk a quarter mile more to access their library, it puts them at a disadvantage,” said Gilpin.

Lambert, the San Francisco city librarian, hopes to see more than a rebound in circulation but also a recovery in programs. Pre-pandemic, the library organized thousands of programs, ranging from story-time gatherings for kids to finance- and career-related workshops for adults. But the library closures meant all programs were held virtually during the pandemic, which led to a sharp drop in the number of programs. In 2019, the library had more than 13,000 youth and 5,500 adult programs. In 2020, these numbers dropped to about 7,700 youth and 4,300 adult programs — a 41% and 22% decrease, respectively. And 2021 was even worse — just 798 youth and 706 adult programs were organized.

According to Lambert, events are a vital part of the library and gather thousands of community members. Pre-pandemic, total annual attendance exceeded 500,000 — something the library hopes to see in the near future as they adopt hybrid in-person and virtual programming.

“(The library) is not just about books. We’re focused on fostering the community and creating shared experiences and bringing people together,” said Lambert.

Nami Sumida is a San Francisco Chronicle data visualization developer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @namisumida


https://www.sfchronicle.com/sf/article/How-the-pandemic-transformed-San-Francisco-s-16667414.php