Librarian Sharice Towles at the Reading Public Library Main Branch in Reading, Pennsylvania, where officials have stopped charging fines on most library items because of the pandemic.
CNN  — 

Ramses Escobedo probably wouldn’t call himself a hero.

But during the pandemic, he was asked to act in some heroic ways.

Escobedo, a bilingual Spanish-English librarian, manages a branch of the San Francisco Public Library.

For more than a year, however, Escobedo hasn’t been lending out books. Instead, he’s worked with a Covid-19 contact tracer team for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health.

Covid has affected American schools, hospitals and businesses. But libraries – which often serve people who have nowhere else to turn – have responded in unprecedented ways. Like many of us, they’ve had to pivot, going from providing extensive in-person services and programming onsite in branches to quickly establishing virtual lectures and classes, and contact-less material pickup, as well as services that were strictly Covid-related like Escobedo’s assignment.

As a city worker, Escobedo’s contract states he can be activated in an emergency. After his library closed in March of 2020, Escobedo was reassigned to a disaster service detail.

“It made sense for librarians … to take on that role because we do outreach. We are in contact with the community every day,” Escobedo told CNN. “I am proud to be part of this collective effort.”

Escobedo’s special assignment is part of a wider wave of libraries stepping up during the pandemic to do things that have little to do with books, but a lot to do with meeting community needs. This continues even as libraries are slowly reopening. And it reflects that they are public institutions offering services to anyone, for free.

But it also shows how libraries operate as a kind of first responder. When they close, people notice. “That was my other home,” Chris McDermott, a retired teacher who lives alone, said of the public library in her town of Ridgefield, Connecticut. “A lifeline.”

Book bundles, curbside pickup and free Wi-Fi

A survey conducted in March of 2020 by the American Library Association found that 99 percent of the public libraries that responded were closed because of the pandemic. But the association, whose membership includes 20,000 public library employees, found many libraries nonetheless added virtual programming, distributed free craft supplies, put together book bundles for families and offered curbside pickup services.

Denise Martens, the assistant director of Youth and Family Services at Hartford Public Library, standing in front of the library's main branch in downtown Hartford, during the pandemic when most public libraries in America closed their doors.

In Hartford, Connecticut, some public libraries became Covid-19 vaccine administration sites. Librarians there also cleared obstacles to allow patrons to use outside electrical outlets to charge cell phones. In Leominster, Massachusetts, about 50 miles west of Boston, librarians installed mobile hot spots at the city’s senior and veterans’ centers, both of which have large parking lots, enabling many more people to log onto the Internet.

“Anyone can go to the parking lot and connect to the Wi-Fi for free,” Nicole Piermarini, the library’s assistant director told CNN.

Librarians are now armed with new information about what critical needs they fill in an emergency. At the main downtown library branch in Hartford, for example, librarians learned how important their copying and fax machines are. Many patrons needed these services to obtain documents to submit to government agencies. So the librarians reoriented the entire first floor to make those services easy to access even during the pandemic.

“We’re the public help desk,” said Bridget E. Quinn, president of the Hartford Public Library, as she gazed out her office window, which overlooks an Interstate 91 on-ramp. “When someone has a – name the device – and they have a question, they call us or they come in.”

It’s true for libraries big and small. Piermarini at the Leominster library in Massachusetts lent out laptops during the pandemic, and had staff on-hand outside to explain how to use them to any patrons checking them out if they didn’t know how they worked.

Many libraries had to establish new remote services – curbside pickup and online programming, for example – virtually overnight when the March 2020 lockdown hit. And now patrons want those services to continue.

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Revamping old services, maintaining new ones

As librarians emerge from Covid-19 closures, they are thinking about how they will maintain existing services along with the new ones. It reflects a broader struggle within the library services field, librarians say, because their mandate has done nothing but grow.

Racks of books are seen during the pandemic in front of the Hartford Public Library, where librarians have had to reimagine the services they offer.

Now as many slowly re-open to the public for the first time in over a year and resume normal operations, they are having to strike a balance between safety and access. And many must do so while lacking the economic resources to fully serve their communities. Many are facing funding shortfalls at a time when public demand for services is up.

In some cases, libraries are re-opening even as many in the community aren’t vaccinated. In Hartford, for example, while more than 50 percent of Connecticut residents are fully vaccinated, only about one-third of people in the state capital are.

“We’re re-opening by degrees,” said Quinn in Hartford. “It’s an interesting conundrum: how do we make the library a warm, welcoming place but still keep a distance?”

Ever-expanding services but limited budget

Few public libraries are flush with cash, although they got a financial lifeline from the federal government during the pandemic in the form of the federal CARES act, which through the Institute of Museum and Library Services allotted $50 million to libraries.

But library leaders say the pandemic money isn’t sustainable.

“The vast majority of public libraries are underfunded to meet the needs of their community,” Michelle Jeske, the City Librarian for Denver Public Library, told CNN.

“Probably significantly underfunded,” added Jeske, who is also president of the Public Library Association.

Many libraries are funded from city or county sales and use taxes, which fell sharply during the pandemic. If local budgets have a hole, libraries are often affected.

“If you were struggling before, because your budget was linked to a tax revenue stream, it’s worse now,” Jeske said of libraries. “Sales and use revenue in our city declined dramatically because people were staying at home.”

It’s not just books; libraries have to have computers. A lot of them. That made the closure of most libraries so dire for patrons without access to a computer or high-speed Internet at home.

“The community’s needs keep growing and changing so we need to, too,” Jeske said. “So we buy everything we used to buy – say, 20 or 30 years ago – and then we have also to buy computers and pay for Wi-Fi.”

The ever-increasing demand for services comes as some of the most iconic libraries in America are still in the initial phases of reopening. The New York Public Library, for example, is only open for limited in-person browsing at most branches.

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The future: Focusing on critical services and seeking partnerships

When American’s libraries do fully re-open, many in the field hope communities will remember how critical their services proved to be during the pandemic, especially to those with the greatest needs, such as people experiencing homelessness.

“Public libraries are the most trusted institution – certainly in government,” Jeske in Denver told CNN. “We are free and open to everybody. And many libraries – if not most – are dedicated to serving the most vulnerable.”

Libraries are slowly re-opening. Two-year-old Frank visited the Oakland Public Library's Rockridge Branch with his father.

It’s work that many parts of government are charged with tackling, but which librarians have no choice but to do since unlike offices, schools or businesses, anyone can walk into a public library for free.

Librarians say going forward, they would like partnerships with public and private entities to help carry out the work libraries do. Public officials need to work with them to apply some of the lessons learned during the pandemic – namely that if a situation arises where everyone has to do everything online, those who don’t have access to a device or reliable Internet connection are often left behind without libraries. Quinn and others say it reflects a skills gap and a technology gap that librarians are uniquely positioned to help with.

Back in San Francisco, Ramses Escobedo says he misses his library where “people from all walks of life come in” and the city’s residents “love their libraries.” Working with the Covid contact tracing team has been exhausting.

But he’ll never regret how he and his fellow librarians spent the pandemic.

“We all wanted to contribute in just any way we could,” he says.