Librarians as Disaster Service Workers During the Pandemic

Written by Theresa-Marie Wilson

Theresa-Maria Wilson has been a journalist covering the North Coast and South County area for over 20 years. She is also the founder of Cat Noir CC and is currently working on a novel.

September 11, 2020

Los Osos Librarians Diana Hammerlund and Derek Hood both worked as county Disaster Service
Workers in the midst of the pandemic.

The day-to-day job duties of a librarian don’t typically include delivering groceries and medical supplies, staffing safe parking locations for the homeless, providing COVID-19 testing support, or performing food preparation. However, as public servants, County librarians took a disaster service worker’s oath promising to respond in times of need — that need came in the form of a worldwide pandemic.

“As a disaster service worker, I could see the positive outcome my work had on the community,” said Derek Hood of the Los Osos Library. “It was important for me to do my part during this pandemic in the community I work and live in.”

Hood, who has worked for the library system for nearly two years and is also a professional magician, was a part of the Safe Parking Program for the homeless where he helped create and setup sites at the Oceano Dunes RV Park, SLO Vets Hall and Los Osos Library parking lot. His duties included staffing, providing supplies and handling any questions or issues that arose on a daily basis.

Other jobs handled by librarians and staff include contact tracing, food delivery, lodging coordination, warehouse logistics, public information dissemination, alternative care site support at Cal Poly, and case management.

“Generally, staff are assigned according to location, need, availability and skill set,” said County Director of Libraries Christopher Barnickel who served as the as the Care & Shelter branch director. “We have an excellent workforce of smart, capable, compassionate, enthusiastic people.  It is a pleasure to serve with them and a privilege to support the needs of the community.”

Victoria Heussen, who has worked in the County library system since 1999 was assigned to “Team Nourish” and was responsible for delivering 18 to 44 bags of fresh produce, dry goods and shelf-stable food items in North County from Creston to San Miguel.

“I felt honored to be able to bring bags of food to those sheltering at home who had no other resources to rely on and/or live in remote areas,” she said.

Diana Hammerlund, who has worked in the County library system for 20 years, calls the Los Osos branch home these days. She took on the job of supplying food for workers at the Emergency Operations Center, the health department, the Joint Information Center and the Safe Parking Program.

“It was a very rewarding experience and gave me a whole new perspective of our county and how it all became a well-oiled machine during this pandemic,” she said.

Bonnie Richan, a senior library associate since 2015, is the branch manager at the Cayucos Library but is currently at the SLO location. She holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology and is a flutist performing with the San Luis Obispo Symphony and the San Luis Chamber Orchestra. She is working with the Care & Shelter team providing services to homeless individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are being sheltered by the County.

“I left this field of work by choice many years ago as it was stressful and difficult for me,” Richan said. “However, as much as I want to not be doing it, I get a sense of satisfaction to be pulling out my old skills and finding that I’m not so rusty. It has been a good reminder for me of the challenges people face, and the resilience of human beings.”

Most of the librarians interviewed are now back at their respective branches and say they are happy to once again interact with patrons and co-workers.

Although people are back in the stacks checking out books and using computers many of the programs the libraries offer are still on hold until likely early next year.

“I most look forward to programs being held here in the library again and being able to see more families come in,” Hammerlund. “They come in now, but not as many as before. I’m sure parents are all being extra careful with their children.”

The experience as disaster service workers has taught them more than their assigned duties.

“I have learned to certainly not take my health for granted, but also just how vital it is to be with people, no matter what kind of work I do,” Richan said.

“I am fortunate to have a roof over my head in a beautiful area,” Heussen said. “I am grateful for running water, gas and, in this day and age, internet access. I am blessed to be in a stable relationship, to still be able to work in a meaningful livelihood. I also know that in this situation, and pre-COVID, there are many that have hardships in many and some monumental ways. My mind and heart goes out to those unfortunate.”

When the pandemic is over, what are they most looking forward to?

“I have been a professional magician for the last 14 years, and I have never gone this long without performing a live show,” Hood said. “Zoom magic shows just are not the same.”

“I am looking forward to getting back to Cayucos Library,” Richan said. “I am also a musician, and very much miss rehearsals and performances.”

“I’m a hugger,” Heusses said. “Hugs all around.”

Seven branches of the County of San Luis Obispo Public Libraries are now open for Grab & Go Services. Hours of operation are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday at the Atascadero, Cambria, Morro Bay, Los Osos, San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande, and Nipomo branches, with a one-hour window for vulnerable populations from 9 a.m.-10 a.m.

“Because of staffing constraints — some of our staff continue to serve in disaster service work assignments,” said Barnickel, “and the inability to safely distance at our seven smaller locations, we will not operate out of those branches until significant environmental changes occur related to COVID, and the Public Health Officer determines it is safe to operate inside small spaces where social distancing is unnecessary.

All open branches follow State and County COVID-19 guidelines, so wear a face covering.

At this time, delivery services are not operating between the Black Gold Cooperative member libraries. Materials for hold requests will be limited to items in the local collections. Items from Black Gold Libraries can be returned at any time to the book drop at your local library.

Some public computers are available at each library. Computers are spaced 6 feet apart, and computer sessions are limited to one 20-minute session per day. Mobile printing is available. Chromebooks, mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, and Launchpads are available for checkout.

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