Librarians on the Front Lines of COVID-19

More than half of SF Public Library personnel have been activated as Disaster Service Workers.

Long before she was activated as a Coordinator in the city’s neighborhood pantry system, Doreen Horstin had been planning on feeding the public. The Library’s Spring Break programming was coming up, and the Children’s Services Librarian was going to read Stone Soup.

“It’s a great folk tale,” Horstin says. “I was going to bring my pressure cooker, have all the kids throw an ingredient in, and then we were gonna hang out together and eat the soup.”

Instead, she’s out on a different street each day, helping thousands of residents get the food they need to survive lockdown.

This February, when mayor London Breed declared a citywide state of emergency, a little-regarded clause in all city employee contracts mobilized librarians like Horstin — along with MUNI drivers, bricklayers, and office clerks — converting them all into Disaster Service Workers, or DSWs.

According to the city’s Department of Human Resources, some 4,884 city employees have been activated as DSWs since February. After the Department of Public Health, Muni, and SFPD, the next biggest group activated has been the city’s library workers. Almost 500 of SFPL’s 902 employees — well over half those in the system — are now serving as DSWs.

This March, after an initial two weeks of sheltering in place, Horstin got an email saying she had been activated as a food bank worker. Her first deployment would be at the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, in the Dogpatch.


In an average week, San Francisco-Marin say they feed about 32,000 households. Since the emergency order, that number has nearly doubled to 60,000. Many of their clients are recipients of the Pantry At Home program, which delivers food to seniors and those who can’t otherwise shop for themselves.

“It’s a loud, noisy job that requires a lot of lifting, but I was so happy to be there,” Horstin says. “All of us as a group understand the importance — that people need to eat — especially people that can’t get out and shop. So we were happy to do it.”

In addition to providing Horstin with a sense of fulfilling her civic duty, the food bank also offered her a chance to see many of her old coworkers again. After two full weeks of sheltering in place, seeing familiar faces was a relief.

“It was so nice just to see people,” she says. “A lot of us have been working together for decades. They’re like family almost. There was a lot of camaraderie.”

If many people in the library system know Doreen Horstin, there’s a good reason. As of early 2020, she is one of an elite few SFPL employees to have worked a shift at every one of the system’s 28 branches.

“The last one was the Merced branch,” she says. “I bought chocolate for the staff there, and wrote a little note that said “I did it. I worked at every branch. Have some chocolate with me.”

Originally, Horstin’s deployment at San Francisco-Marin Food Bank was only supposed to last two weeks. But when those fourteen days were up, she and her team felt so comfortable working together that they requested to be kept on their jobs at the Dogpatch warehouse. The higher-ups listened, and their deployment was extended by a week, followed by another two. Finally, after a total of five weeks, Horstin was taken off the job and put on break. Even on break, she regularly biked to the warehouse to drop off snacks for the other DSWs.

In May, Horstin was redeployed as a Coordinator in the city’s neighborhood pantry system, where those experiencing food instability can come and get a free bag of groceries. The position requires her to wake at the ungodly hour of 5:30am.

“That was an adjustment,” she says, “but I got it now. I just go to bed really early. I’m so tired at the end of the day.”

In her new role, Hostin spends most of the day out on the streets. Pantry lines often stretch for blocks, snaking through crosswalks and around corners. Someone has to be out there managing the crowd, making sure people get to the right place, and stay socially distanced while they wait.

“It’s actually a little more like what we do as librarians,” Horstin says. “People always have questions. You have to be friendly, welcoming, and greet people in multiple languages.”


Food instability is just one of the existential threats currently looming over San Francisco. Another is helping the city’s roughly 9,700 unhoused individuals practice adequate social distancing, or (for those infected) isolate entirely. In April, the city’s Board of Supervisors passed legislation requiring the mayor to rent out some 8,250 hotel rooms to the homeless (a target number that, by last count, was still a long way off.)

After his activation, Teen Services Librarian Ruben Balderas was deployed as a site monitor at one of the hotels leased by the city. His first duty was to outfit the building for its new function.

“We were tasked with going through every room and selecting which would be best for which staff purposes,” Balderas says. “We had to find a room to purpose into a supply room, a break room. There was a CBO [Community Based Organization] that needed rooms too.”

As the hotel began to take on guests, Balderas and the other DSWs shifted to delivering meals to the building’s roughly 150 rooms. Meals are delivered three times a day, and built based around each guest’s dietary restrictions. 

“It could be pretty tiring actually,” he says. “Just piling meals onto a cart and dropping them off at rooms in a timely manner, it was a lot of physical labor. I sweat through my shirt every single day.”

Unlike Horstin, Balderas lives in Alameda and relies on public transportation to get into the city for work, a commute which has become much more anxiety-inducing since the shelter-in-place order. 

“The first thing on my mind every morning is exposure on BART, just going to and from work,” he says.

After his training at Moscone Center (now operating as the city’s coronavirus emergency operations center), Balderas was given a few personally-fitted N95 masks. Each lasted about three days.

“Once my properly-fitted N95 masks broke, it ramped up the stress a bit,” he says, “especially because by that point there were more people in the hotel.”

While DSWs deployed at the hotel are told not to have any direct contact with the guests, Balderas says that goal is often “impossible.” When dropping off meals, DSWs are instructed to let guests know food has arrived by knocking on their door.

“Inevitably, some people are going to open them,” Balderas says. 

Worse is navigating the narrow hallways when guests are outside their rooms: “You can’t socially distance necessarily, so you kind of hold your breath and hope for the best.”


Anna Cvitkovic normally works with Balderas in “The Mix,” the Main Library’s teen center. But for the past six weeks, she has been cold-calling San Francisco residents who have either come down with COVID-19, or have had contact with someone who has. Most calls are in Spanish. While San Francisco’s Latinx population only makes up about 15 percent of the city’s total population, in some neighborhoods, like the Mission, the Latinx community accounts for up to 95 percent of those infected with the virus.

“I’ll be honest, it’s not the easiest position for me,” Cvitkovic says. “Spanish is not my first language, and I want to make sure that I’m giving the best care and quality to each call that I possibly can. Often, it means I have to ask someone to repeat something a couple of times. There’s a lot of medical terminology that I’m learning that I didn’t previously know.”

Each day, Cvitkovic is assigned to a team led either by someone from the city’s Department of Health, or UCSF’s Infectious Diseases department. She works from home, calling residents over Zoom, and proceeding according to a pre-written script. Calls tend to last about 45 minutes — though that, like everything else about the position, is subject to wild variation.

“It’s extremely unpredictable,” Cvitkovic says. “It’s seven days a week, and the schedule is totally erratic. You might get a whole bunch of voicemails, or you might have four solid hours of having very difficult conversations with people.”

Often, the work is emotionally taxing.

“I’m incredibly proud of the work that I’m doing,” she says, “but it ebbs and flows. I’ll admit there was a day recently where I ended my shift and just burst into tears.”

All of the library workers interviewed for this article stress the pride they feel in their DSW work — their sense that the jobs they are doing are truly essential, critical, and of vital importance to a city three months into lockdown. That pride, however, is often complicated by overlapping feelings of uncertainty, fear, and nostalgia for the way things once were.

“I miss my job,” says Horstin. “I miss the families that we interacted with weekly, sometimes daily. I think about them all the time. I just wonder when we’ll be able to see each other again.

After a few weeks, Balderas was taken off his assignment at the hotel. Last week, he got an email from the city’s Department of Human Resources saying that he had been reassigned. The new role is still TBD, but this time he has been told it will be remote.

The same day, Horstin received a different email.

“I am re-deployed for another month with the food bank,” she tells me over text. “Ends July 31st.”

By the end of July, Horstin will have spent a full quarter of 2020 making sure her neighbors get the food they need. Cvitovic, on the other hand, may be on her assignment even longer.

“I receive[d] a few short surveys hinting at remaining a Contact Tracer for the rest of the calendar year,” Cvitovic says, over email. “Nothing confirmed.”

With the crisis still far from over (June 29th was one of California’s worst days yet, adding 8,086 new cases in 24 hours) the sacrifices made by the city’s librarians have already been incalculable. And as part of an institution regularly lodged on a fiscal chopping block, Balderas highlights a perpetual concern:

“I hope that people see what library workers are doing in the community right now,” he says, “and I hope they remember us when it comes time to decide the budget.”

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