THROUGHOUT ALL THE ups and downs of 2020, libraries in and around San Mateo County have provided more than just curbside service. They’re curating book bundles, providing extra Wi-Fi hotspots and some even 3-D printed protective equipment for hospitals.

When COVID-19 shutdowns began in March, libraries — like many business and facilities — had to pivot the way they serve communities.

At the Daly City Public Library, staff transitioned quickly to virtual programming, according to Stephen Stolte, the city’s assistant manager.

“Our staff has really shined,” Stolte said. “A lot of us were so impressed with our staff’s talents and skills that we didn’t know that they had otherwise.”

These talents ranged from social media skills to video editing, as the library provided online programming like virtual story-time in languages like Tagalog and Chinese.

In fact, the video in Tagalog was one of the library’s most viewed, Stolte said. Plus, as expected, people’s interest in e-books has skyrocketed.

In terms of reading trends, Stolte said that readers’ interests have followed larger societal trends.

“Checkout stuff like anti-racism increased dramatically and then our library really built up those collections pretty swiftly,” Stolte said. “Interest in political books was also really high. Michelle Obama’s book ‘Becoming’ is still incredibly popular. Self-help books were also quite popular this year, though they always are.”

More than just books

Libraries have been providing more than just books. They’ve partnered with school districts and the county to provide meals and offer free Wi-Fi.

As schools transitioned to distance learning, Wi-Fi hotspots became popular checkout items. Staff at the Daly City Public Library also provided technology support by phone.

“When schools closed down, a lot of students were left without internet options at home. Something we’re really excited about is offering free public Wi-Fi outside of our facilities,” Stolte said. “Now people can come to the parking lot, or sit on a bench outside the building, and log onto the Wi-Fi.”

The free Wi-Fi is a partnership with San Mateo County. The county’s Board of Supervisors dedicated over $6 million of federal funding towards a public connectivity initiative. Throughout the pandemic, the county has installed Wi-Fi access points at various locations, including library parking lots.

“When schools closed down, a lot of students were left without internet options at home. Something we’re really excited about is offering free public Wi-Fi outside of our facilities.”

Stephen Stolte, Daly City assistant manager

Director of San Mateo County Libraries Anne-Marie Despain also noticed a high demand for Wi-Fi hotspots. In response, Despain said they purchased additional Wi-Fi hotspots for checkout. Like the Daly City Public Library, San Mateo County Libraries also offered meal distributions at some sites and used 3D printing to print personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face shields.

Despain said “Grab and Go” book bundles with children’s books have also been popular among parents. Recently, the library began offering sewing machines and bikes for checkout.

There have also been waves of support for online programming.

At the Palo Alto City Library — which is part of nearby Santa Clara County — staff hosted two author events around racial equity following George Floyd’s killing.

The first was an event with author Richard Rothstein, who wrote “The Color of Law.”

Heavy turnout

Gayathri Kanth, interim director of the Palo Alto City Library, said that it’s hard to predict attendance at author events. She was hoping for at least 100 people.

They ended up with 480 attendees. A second author event with Jennifer Eberhardt, author of “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do”, saw over 700 attendees.

“That kind of reach is unusual because we could have never done it in the library within four walls,” Kanth said. “We’re realizing that even when we open fully, we’ve got to do online stuff, because there’s an audience for that kind of programming.”

For many of the libraries, online programming like virtual story-time will be here to stay, even after pandemic precautions wind down.

While librarians look forward to reopening, it’s no small task. They will have to rethink the layout of the library, install glass shields at computer stations and rearrange seating so that visitors are more spaced out.

Rukshana Singh, deputy city librarian of the San Mateo Public Library, said that reopening the library will be a slow, gradual process, but she looks forward to having the people back in the building. Like other librarians, she misses the in-person interactions.

“I miss the vibrancy of having people here and seeing people use the library and being able to walk out and talk to people,” Singh said. “It’s a unique environment to work in.”

Victoria Magbilang, executive director of the Daly City Public Library Associates, feels similarly about Daly City’s library: she misses the community aspect.

When Magbilang first moved to Daly City, being involved in the library helped her feel connected.

“I’m still friends with the moms that I met when my kids were little at story-time,” Magbilang said. “I didn’t grow up in Daly City, so libraries were so essential in making me fall in love with Daly City and see everything that it had to offer.”

Fundraising never stops

The organization that Magbilang runs helps fundraise for the library. This year, they provided $43,470 in grants, which went toward projects like upgrading the public-use computers pre-pandemic, funding a summer learning program and providing Chromebooks, Wi-Fi hotspots and children’s tablets.

The Associates have big plans for 2021, too. Instead of their usual in-person fundraisers — which would have been a St. Patrick’s Day luncheon and a car show — they will focus on a virtual celebration to mark their 10-year anniversary. They also introduced a Daly City Youth Poet Laureate program, which will recognize a teen poet in the city.

Magbilang said she was impressed and inspired by the way the library has stepped up to the challenge of the pandemic, providing activities from the bilingual online story-times to virtual trivia nights, author talks and escape rooms.

“They had an excuse to just be like, ‘Oh, there’s nothing we can do. We’re closed.’ But they’ve been just as active as ever, just in a different format,” Magbilang said.