Programming Through the Pandemic

With buildings closed to flatten the COVID-19 curve, libraries respond with a rapid pivot to contactless service.

Illustration by Sam Ward

As of April 1, 34 states had “shelter in place” directives to encourage, or require, social distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Urban areas within many other states do as well. While essential employees from delivery workers to health care professionals risk their lives, a record number of U.S. citizens are at home, whether teleworking or facing mass unemployment. Many are caring for children whose schools are closed. Without a number of the core tools in their repertoire, public libraries are meeting the challenge by reimagining how to serve the public without putting patrons and staff at risk.

Using a mix of social media platforms, including Facebook Live and Stories, Instagram, Discord, Zoom, GoToMeeting, and YouTube, public libraries are taking to the internet in droves, providing a wide range of programming. Some, like the Oceanside Library in New York, had already dabbled in online programming. When Tony Iovino, assistant director for community services, left his job as head of litigation in a law firm to coordinate programming at the library, he created an online book club, which proved popular. When the library announced its closing on March 13, Iovino and his team began planning to recalibrate in a virtual environment, an extension of the zeitgeist that had previously led him to hold programs in local bars, businesses, and even funeral homes.

By March 14, he had contacted scheduled presenters to tell them they would still be paid. Programs that could translate to the online environment made the switch; others would reschedule when the library could resume regular services. Two days later, the library was offering four programs a day, including story times, book chats, and book clubs. By the end of the week, Iovino had ramped up to offering eight or nine programs a day, including a virtual counseling session in conjunction with Malloy College and a local pediatrician, who chatted with parents about how to help children understand what was going on. “We recognize that there’s a real need for socialization under any circumstance,” says Iovino. To meet that need, the library has added yoga and Reiki classes to its online portfolio.

 

TRADITION, WITH A TWIST

For libraries that hadn’t previously dipped a toe into online programming, beginning with staples translated to the online environment gave them confidence while allowing them to connect with their communities. Almost overnight, hundreds of libraries offered story times, book clubs, and readers advisory [RA] services. Diana Platt, community engagement librarian at the Kansas City Public Library (KCPL), MO, had experimented with virtual programming, but hadn’t fully committed. “Two years ago, we held a program specifically designed for Facebook Live, where a life coach gave some tips and tricks for surviving the stressful holiday season,” explains Platt.

Held during the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, the series was a hit—within two months, the videos had more than 1,000 views. When the library closed in mid-March, the youth services staff launched a daily story time. By the end of the week, Platt held her first live RA session for adults. After recommending some books, she shared information about digital resources—and then chatted with viewers and provided real-time book suggestions.

Platt used Facebook Live, and while she had 15 to 20 viewers in real time, three days later the view count was 1,600. Lucy Lockley, lead collection development librarian at the St. Charles City-County Library, MO, had a similar experience. “On March 24, we offered our first ‘What Should I Read?’ event on Facebook Live,” says Lockley. “We encouraged our customers to ask for book recommendations during a two-hour window and a team of staff provided personalized recommendations (with links to our collection).”

Lockley pressed the entire collection development staff into service to provide recommendations for adults, teens, and kids. “We reached almost 2,200 people during our live Reader’s Advisory event, with 148 comments and 13 shares over the course of two hours,” says Lockley, who hopes to replicate the success of this program on Twitter in the coming weeks. The library also has an online reading challenge group on Facebook with more than 200 members, who explore new genres and authors each month. “The COVID-19 situation has inspired everyone on staff to be creative and come up with new ways for us to reach out and interact with our customers—no matter where they are,” says Lockley. “Offering live online RA at my library has been a personal dream for some time and it was exciting to see it in action.”

HOUSEBOUND BUT NOT HUMDRUM Top: St. Charles City-County Library publicizes its Facebook Live events with eye-catching graphics. Bottom: Normal Public Library’s website highlights a range of programming that the whole family can access from home

Normal Public Library, IL, Community Engagement Manager Laura Golaszewski has organized everything from a tea and paint class to a live concert with classical musicians. “With COVID forcing our building to close, we knew we wanted to establish a positive digital space for people to gather and enjoy the programs they would have otherwise attended at the library,” says Golaszewski. “Many patrons have told us having that part of their routine back, albeit virtually, has been a great comfort.”

At LA County Library, the 2019 Gale/LJ Library of the Year, virtual story times are filmed in the branches by a minimized staff that alternates between telework and on-site to allow social distancing, creating a consistent feel for viewers. The story times play on the county’s own channel as well as Facebook and Instagram Live.

But not all virtual programs are real-time or require video. LA County Library is also producing activity sheets for all ages, Assistant Director of Education and Engagement Debbie Anderson tells LJ. Adults might access a page of background about an artist, information on where to take a virtual museum tour, and a coloring sheet of their art; children’s content includes coloring sheets as well as worksheets and origami instructions that can be printed out from home or picked up from the lobbies of otherwise-closed buildings, along with crayons, activity kits, and holds. For adults, virtual book clubs, poetry readings, and book chats provide entertainment and distraction.

Patrons are encouraged to create their own content as well. Marathon County Public Library in Wisconsin is holding an adult pandemic writing project, providing a way to channel concerns into short fiction, poetry, or nonfiction. The public has a week to submit content, which will then be posted on the library’s blog and social media channels.

New Jersey’s Princeton Public Library is developing an online calendar of virtual events that will include other community happenings in addition to the library’s. Staff launched a virtual poem-of-the-day on Instagram Stories (@princetonpl) in April. But they’re also going low tech and high touch: Library workers have been calling regulars to check on them—or, if they cannot find them directly, reaching out to others people who might be able to get in touch. The library has even offered to take to the phone lines and help them tackle new skill sets such as ordering groceries online. There’s only so much that can be done over the phone, says Executive Director Jennifer Podolsky, but people appreciate the effort.

 

IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR

With families sheltering in place, programs that appeal to a wide range of ages at once are popular. (As, of course, are kid-focused programs and learning opportunities for displaced students and parents thrust into homeschooling—see coverage from our sister publication School Library Journal. KCPL moved its Friday Family program online by creating virtual crafts or experiments using household items. The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), which serves nearly 337,000 people in two counties, has experience hosting virtual author chats, weekly story times, and mayoral candidate debates. “As much as possible, we want our community to have access to the same programs they’ve been enjoying in person, so now we are working to get as much as we can in digital formats,” says CALS Deputy Executive Director Lisa Donovan.

To that end, the library is using multiple platforms to stream programs on personal archiving and finding family facts, home movie nights, and even National Endowment for the Arts Big Read discussions. In coming weeks, it will host “Cabin Fever Cosplay: a lo-fi, DIY book character costume party; a video series on digital comics; bizarre stories from Arkansas history; programs featuring the CALS art collection; genealogy; bedtime stories; a podcast for teens with reviews of new media; beginner American Sign Language for kids; STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] building activities; crafting and sewing lessons; family trivia; technology classes; and more,” says Donovan.

Virtual gaming programs abound. The Brooklyn Public Library, NY, and Normal Public Library are hosting virtual Dungeons & Dragons games. Lindy Meiser, manager of the Pottsboro Library in Texas, held a drive-in Mario Kart tournament in the library’s parking lot, projecting video games onto a trailer while participants battled it out from the safety of their cars. And in Pennsylvania, Sydney Krawiec, youth services librarian at the Peters Township Public Library, has created a Hogwarts Digital Escape Room.

 

RESTORATIVE SERVICES

In recent weeks, millions of people found themselves unemployed, or with their jobs at risk. At the Santa Barbara Public Library, CA, the “SBPL Works!” workforce readiness program provides phone or email assistance with writing cover letters and resumes, searching for a job, online job applications, and even practice interviews. The library has also created multilingual videos on its YouTube channel to help people applying for unemployment. For those still employed and suddenly working from home, Pennsylvania’s Schlow Centre Regional Library made seven Zoom rooms available for groups, organizations, and businesses to use for free.

Virtual yoga and movement programs are popular, such as those at the Schuylerville Public Library in New York, which launched a virtual wellness series to support its rural community days after closing.

 

GETTING STARTED

For those considering launching or expanding virtual programs, but not sure where to start, the key is to first choose a platform, then determine what will best suit it—what works on one may not on another. “Instagram and Facebook stories can serve as an incredibly engaging space for mini-programs,” says Golaszewski. “Stories have become a great place for us to do quick how-to’s for e-resources. It’s a fun way to catch a different audience than a longer YouTube video would, and the format lends itself well to patrons asking questions, since the direct message option is right there at the bottom of each screen.”

REAL TIME RA Kansas City Public Library’s Diana Platt offers readers’ advisory services on Facebook Live, chatting with viewers and giving book suggestions

Moving online is a chance to get creative. The Ocean­side Library typically has teens providing 100 to 150 hours of community service each week—a requirement for high school graduation. Iovino began a TikTok chore challenge for them; the brief videos were so popular, the library called on adults to demonstrate how to do things around the house, asking participants to hashtag the library in all postings.

Confidence, creativity, and curiosity are key components to success—as is risk taking. “You have to be willing to try and fail,” says Iovino. “We’ve had some tech difficulties, but people have been patient with us. It’s important to put aside the idea that this isn’t how we do it. We’ve always been involved with providing information and entertainment. Our patrons are now willing to receive it in a different manner.”

Virtual programs also provide an opportunity to highlight digital collections. When Lockley does RA, she chooses titles from hoopla and Overdrive so patrons can access them right away. She and her team coordinate answering questions posed by viewers using Google Chat.

An unexpected result of moving programs online has been an increased audience, and a broadening of the community served. Many libraries offering virtual programming report participants from across the country, and even overseas.

 

NEW NORMAL

No one knows what the timeline will be for libraries to safely reopen their buildings. It may vary in different regions, and include months of half measures that continue to impact in-person programming. Even after a vaccine for the virus is available, these months of experimentation by library staff, and new habits on the part of patrons, will likely shift how public libraries deliver programs for good, to some extent. While face-to-face programming will resume once it is safe to convene groups—no doubt with increased enthusiasm—libraries will probably keep up virtual programs as well, increasing accessibility for those who can’t travel and removing some barriers to participation (while creating others for those affected by the digital divide).

Moving forward, Donovan will continue to offer virtual programs because, “One, patrons will expect it, and two, there are some ideas that seem ideal…that may not have worked well in traditional programming, and now that we’ve gotten over the hurdle of getting our audience familiar with how to attend virtual programming it’ll be easier to explore all those possibilities.”

With the need to imagine programming differently, “our social media and programming staff has really been allowed to shine,” she tells LJ. “I wish we’d known how much fun it is, and how much our patrons would appreciate it.”

For many, virtual programming during the isolation and worry of the COVID crisis offers a lifeline, instilling a sense of normalcy amidst uncertainty and change. For others, it’s a chance for socialization and connection. “The Centers for Disease Control says that loneliness is an epidemic and has a higher morbidity rate than obesity,” says Iovino. “We can’t put people in the same room, but we have the technology to put some people face-to-face.”

Donovan echoes his statement. “People have been appreciative, but it’s not just the traditional programming that is attracting the attention from patrons,” she says. “They like engaging with us and sharing their stories about how they’ve felt over the last few weeks.”

 


Erica Freudenberger is outreach consultant, Southern Adirondack Library System, Saratoga Springs, NY, and a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker.

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