Public Library and Chill: Online Use of SFPL Soars During Shelter-in-Place

Locals are checking out e-books and streaming movies at a furious clip, as applications for temporary digital cards top 80 per day.

As the Bay Area enters a fourth homebound week, overall electronic resource usage at the San Francisco Public Library is up nearly 50 percent, librarians say, and more people are signing up for temporary library cards every day.

“We’re doing everything to meet people’s needs right now, to keep them engaged and entertained,” says Daniel Matsumoto, an electronic resources librarian who has been with SFPL for 10 years. “More than ever, that’s the purpose we want to serve right now.”

The most popular online library resource has been Kanopy, which lets patrons stream feature movies and documentaries at home through a Netflix-like interface. Usage has more than doubled since mid-March, when the shelter-in-place order went into effect.

Users are also checking out more e-books, audio books, and comic books through electronic library services such as Axis360, Hoopla, and Overdrive. Depending on the title and availability, the materials can be read on computers, tablets, or e-readers.

All it takes to access the free services is a library card. Those who already have one are all set. Those with recently expired cards may still be okay. Cards that expired in 2019, or which were going to expire by May 2020, have been extended to September.

Even those without a library card can now sign up online for a temporary digital card; it’s the first time SFPL has offered such an option.

“This is something very unusual for us,” Matsumoto says. “Normally we need a picture ID, but we don’t expect people to be scanning their IDs and sending them to us.”

Instead, the only requirement for a temporary card is a San Francisco street address.  Usually all Californians are eligible for library cards from SFPL, but because demand for the new digital cards is so high, and staffing is so limited, they’re currently restricted to only San Francisco residents.

“Right now, this is all we can handle,” Matsumoto says. “We’re registering like 80 every day, and only three of us can process them.”

Those temporary digital cards will expire on May 31 — but if the shelter-in-place order lasts longer than that, they’ll be automatically extended. And once libraries are finally open again, patrons will be able to convert temporary, digital cards into regular, physical ones.

What e-books are popular, during the shelter in place?

“There’s a lot of interest in pandemics right now, I’ve been noticing,” Matsumoto says. “End-of-the-world type content is popular, but we also have our regular readers interested in novels.”

Matsumoto says some of the in-demand titles that have emerged over the past couple weeks are How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (by local author Jenny Odell); The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History; The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma; and The Plague.

“It’s interesting what people are reading when things like this happen,” Matsumoto says. “It’s understandable.”

There are also tons of other electronic resources at SFPL — including genealogy databases like Ancestry, Fold3, and HeritageQuest. And don’t forget the library’s online subscriptions to newspapers and magazines, with historic editions of our sister publication, the San Francisco Examiner, going all the way back to 1865. (SFPL also has back issues of SF Weekly, but they’re only available on microfilm at the Main Library in person.)

“I think it’s a good time to rediscover the library,” Matsumoto says. “A lot of people have had a library card years ago and they’re just getting reacquainted with the library and are pleasantly surprised to see the website and the great stuff that’s available.”

Michael Toren is an SF Weekly staff writer covering news. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter @Michael_Toren.

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