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San Diego’s head librarian Misty Jones has a lot of numbers on her mind these days, and not just the Dewey Decimal System. Residents just besieged branches to snap up 20,000 rapid covid tests, 174 of 600 library jobs are open and need filling, and patrons are eagerly checking out 2,000 portable Wi-Fi hotspots.

And then there are the statistics that reveal the size of the sprawling system that Jones oversees. Before the pandemic, the San Diego library system had the nation’s eighth-largest collection and ninth-largest number of visitors despite being one of the least-funded of the top 25 libraries in the U.S.

There’s good news: While the pandemic kept the libraries shut entirely or only with pick-up service for much of the last two years, downtown’s Central Library and 30 of 35 branches have returned to normal Monday through Saturday hours. The restoration of Sunday hours at Central Library and 12 branches is in the works.

Meanwhile, Jones — a veteran of libraries in South Carolina who took over the San Diego system in 2014 — is working to build several new branches from near Torrey Pines to Ocean Beach and San Carlos.

In a Q&A interview, Jones explained how the library system is doing. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Randy Dotinga: How has the Omicron surge affected the branches?

Misty Jones: We’ve had more staff out quarantining or due to potential exposures. There’s a lot of shuffling around and asking each morning if locations have an extra person to send to a different branch to fill in a gap.

We have not had to close any locations due to Omicron, but we’re not doing any additional events that we may have to cancel. We’ve pulled back on in-person programs like children’s story time and Library NExT, a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) program for elementary, middle and high-school students. We tried to transition those to in-person, but now they’ve gone back to virtual.

RD: Two branches, Skyline Hills and Oak Park, returned to Monday through Saturday hours this week. Serra Mesa-Kearny Mesa is open two days a week and for pickup of materials, North Clairemont is open for pickups of materials, and Clairemont, Mountain View/Beckworth and Ocean Beach are temporarily closed. How do you decide which branches stay open the most?

MJ: Some locations only have one staff member, and the rest of the positions are vacant. And we are trying to focus on getting branches open in [disadvantaged neighborhoods].

RD: Are you seeing fewer visitors overall?

MJ: Yes. It was getting better, but we’ve seen a dip during Omicron. Before the pandemic, we got more than seven million visitors a year. We’re probably at about half that now since there are a lot of people are cautious about coming out to public spaces.

The customer service center at the Central Library on Dec. 15, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

RD: You lost hundreds of staffers when the library was closed during the first part of the pandemic. What happened?

MJ: We had a lot of people retire, and a lot of people resigned. Even before the pandemic, we had about 100 vacancies because many of our staffers were in hourly positions, which had a 30 percent attrition rate. Now we have positions with benefits, and we’re really being successful at filling them. It’s just a long process because we had so many openings.

RD: What’s next for the reopening process?

MJ: My ultimate goal is to get all branches open from Monday through Saturday by July 1 and restore Sunday hours at the Central Library and 13 branches by that point. Once we do that, we’ll be back at pre-pandemic levels of service hours.

RD: Is there a long-term plan to extend hours beyond that?

MJ: There’s been some interest in adding Sunday hours to some locations.

RD: How has the usage of the library changed during the pandemic?

MJ: We had about a 78 percent increase in the checkouts of our e-books, and something like a 200 percent increase in the use of our online resources. Our book pick-up services went over really well, as did our outdoor computer labs at 10 branches that we’d opened to make sure we didn’t cut off computer access. In a lot of communities, the library is the only place that people can come to use the computer.

We’ve seen more people paging through our social media and attending virtual programs. We now have the online movie streaming service Kanopy, and that’s really popular.

We’ve also started checking out our 2,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, and that’s been super-successful. Soon we’ll be checking out Chromebook laptops, and we’re also working on a hotline that people can call for information about how to get an affordable Internet connection in their home.

The lobby of the Central Library on Dec. 15, 2021. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

RD: How will the pandemic affect library operations in the future?

MJ: A lot of patrons would like to see us continue some kind of curbside or pickup service for books. We don’t have the staffing now to be able to be open and do pickup service at the same time, but that’s something that we’re looking at long term. There may be ways to have lockers where people could pick up books.

RD: Like an Amazon locker?

MJ: Yes. We’re looking at ways of how we continue to offer services, so people access the library even outside of our open hours. One of the things we did during the pandemic was expand our Wi-Fi from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. so people could be around the buildings and still use the Wi-Fi even if we weren’t open.

RD: What are the plans for new and expanded branches?

MJ: We’ll have a new branch in Pacific Highlands Ranch [a housing development near Carmel Valley]. It’s out for bid for construction and slated to be open by 2024. We’re planning for the expansion of the Ocean Beach branch, and that’s in the design phase, and we’re looking at a new library for Oak Park.

And we’re planning for a branch for San Carlos. It has a design, which will need to be tweaked and updated a bit, and we need to identify the funding to build it.

RD: Critics say libraries aren’t useful or relevant in the digital age. How has the pandemic affected the role of libraries?

MJ: A lot of people don’t know about the resources we have outside of books and computers. We have resources for career exploration, a patent and trademark resource center, resources for veterans, and a free Do Your Homework @ the Library program where students can come in for tutoring after school. We’re helping kids get back into the swing of education after learning online for a year and a half.

That’s what I love about the library. We have the ability to constantly redefine ourselves to fit community needs.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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