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All Are Welcome: How the San Francisco Library Became a Wildfire Refuge
In November, the San Francisco Public Library opened its doors – and its hearts – during California’s deadliest-ever wildfire
By Alison Roth
The smoke-filled air was thick and hazy, a stark contrast to San Francisco’s typically clear skies. “You could see it and feel it everywhere. People walked down the streets wearing masks,” said Michelle Jeffers, Chief of Community Programs & Partnerships for the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). “It felt almost apocalyptic.”
The November 2018 “Camp Fire,” California’s deadliest wildfire on record, killed more than 80 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes and buildings over a period of several weeks. While San Francisco was 100 miles away from the fire itself, the residual smoke caused widespread pollution and created potential health hazards for San Franciscans.
It was dangerous to be outside – but for many, it was nearly as dangerous to be inside. Because the city is temperate year-round, many residents and business don’t have filtered air or air-conditioning.
But one place that does? The public library.
For five days in November, said Jeffers, the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library stayed open late, providing much-needed filtered air to the public. Jeffers said the idea originated after the library helped promote other smoke-free public respites in the area – including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, whose Public Knowledge Library was created in partnership with SFPL.
“My colleague at the Department of Emergency Management called and asked if we would consider staying open later,” she said. “Our City Librarian Michael Lambert didn’t hesitate. We typically close at 6 p.m. on Fridays, but that night we stayed open till 9. The staff pulled out films for people to watch and games for people to play and opened the lower level.”
Jeffers said that between 15 and 40 people per night took advantage of the late hours. The smoke continued to get worse, so the library stayed open late for several additional nights. “Different staff stayed late each night, and everyone jumped to it,” she said. “We had to balance maintaining service to the public and keeping our staff safe, but the staff was amazing. Nobody said 'no' if they were in a position to stay.”
The library got the word out about the extra hours via social media and the press, including the San Francisco Chronicle, which is where ProQuest first heard about this story. In addition, they temporarily waived overdue fines to ensure people didn’t venture out into the smoke just to return books on time.
Jeffers said she’s proud of the way the SFPL joined other local organizations to respond to the fire, and she said they wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. “We’re open and welcoming to all. If you have no other place to go, you can come here,” she said. “The library plays part in the city’s emergency response and social services teams, and we take pride in getting to be in that role.”
Alison Roth is the lead business blogger at ProQuest. A former journalist, she enjoys AP style, direct quotes and a good Oxford Comma debate. She was inspired to become a writer many years ago by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry, and is still influenced by his style to this day. You can follow Alison on Instagram at @five_speed_