How Public Libraries Are Handling Summer Reading During COVID-19

I don’t think the pandemic was real to me until our district announced school closures. That same day, I bounded up the steps to my local library, on my way to return books, and found a sign on the front door. It said that the library was closing in a few hours. Indefinitely.

Though this made perfect sense, I felt a twinge of panic. My daughter and I typically found ourselves at the library two or three times a week, dropping off books, picking up new ones. What would we do with ourselves now? How would we get the next book in the Hilo series? What would I read??

On the other side of the circulation desk, library staffers were grappling with their own questions. What would it mean to close the library? How long would it last? How would they sustain themselves? And how could they continue to (safely) serve the community?

Two months later, staffers’ thoughts are turned toward summer reading programs. Though some states are slowly loosening social distancing regulations—including my state of New Jersey, which is among the hardest hit in the country—it’s clear to most everybody that this summer won’t look like other summers.

“The reality is, we won’t be able to offer in-person programming for the foreseeable future,” says Claudine Pascale, Director of the Verona Public Library in Verona, New Jersey. “Our Summer Reading programs usually pack the meeting room, and our finale attracts so many people we have to hold it in the Community Center’s ballroom. That just can’t happen this year.”

Taking Summer Reading Programs Online

Instead, libraries across the country are moving things online. In New Jersey, the New Jersey State Library is providing all libraries in the state with a two-year registration for READsquared, a platform that allows patrons to track their reading, earn raffle tickets and badges, get book recommendations, and play games. Other library staffers mention Beanstack, similar software that also allows them to take reading programs online.

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Some libraries are struggling with this sudden shift. “We’re putting content out there but it’s hard to gauge how people are responding to it,” says Pascale. “Do I add the number of Facebook post Likes to my monthly stat report? Is that an accurate representation of how we’re serving the public?”

Others are finding the transition easier, though they still bemoan the lack of in-person engagement. The King County Library System in Washington state, for example, had already been using Beanstack as a parallel experience for people who wanted to do the library’s summer reading challenge online.

“It’s fortunate that we have the infrastructure to continue using that this year,” says Rekha Kuver, the system’s youth and family services manager, though she says they plan to offer downloadable versions of the challenge sheets to those who prefer that, and to have printouts available for distribution at outreach sites.

Reading challenges aside, perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is figuring out how to repackage other types of programming that usually occur as part of summer reading.

“A huge part of summer reading for us is bringing community together,” says Kuver. “Creating a community of readers, a community of learners. We’re all being asked to be physically distant, but how can we still say socially connected?”

To that end, she and her fellow library staffers have been reconsidering the ideal formats for programs they’d previously offered as in-person events. In some cases, like storytimes, it makes sense to have a real-time Zoom event. Other programs are now more accessible as asynchronous events, recorded and uploaded to their YouTube channel for people to watch in their own time. Even the length of various programs is being scrutinized.

“This is a great learning opportunity for all of us to not just learn about different platforms but to ask questions,” says Kuver. “Why is a shorter program more beneficial in some cases? How do you make something engaging when interacting through a screen? How does pacing need to be different? These are rich conversations that will serve us during this time and beyond.”

Maintaining a Community of Readers

Meanwhile, every library staffer seems worried about staying connected with their local community. Susan Conlon, the Head of Youth Services at the Princeton Public Library in Princeton, New Jersey, explains that human interaction has always been integral to everything from the reading challenges to the live events to their teen volunteer program. “That’s a lot of human interaction and we thought it was one of the things that made our program so strong,” she says. “We could offer reader advisory right on the spot. Circulation was high. We think kids will adapt,” she concedes. “But we’re concerned with kids being out of school and still needing to be connected in some way. It’s more important than ever.”

Pascale mentions the chat feature they added to the Verona Public Library website, and the messages they get through Facebook, but she says that those interactions just aren’t as rich. “And then there is a whole portion of the population that I know we’re not reaching because either they don’t have access to the internet or don’t feel comfortable with social media and using online resources,” she says. “They’re not interested in ebooks or streaming movies. Those are the people we’re having trouble staying connected to. We have been making phone calls to some of our regulars, specifically seniors, just to check in and see if there is anything we can help them with. But I know we’re not reaching everyone who once visited us. Librarians love to help others and we really miss the daily interactions with patrons in the library.”

But staffers are doing what they can and, of course, summer reading programs aren’t the only services that have moved online. Many libraries have hit the ground running, putting a number of activities and resources online for adults and kids alike.

In King County, for example, they’ve recast regular events like their Reading with Rover program, during which kids were once able to come to the library to read out loud to dogs. “It was a fun, nonjudgmental, emotionally connected way to practice reading,” says Kuver. “We have successfully converted that program to an online experience.” Families can now pre-register to receive a Zoom link that allows them to read to a certified therapy dog via live video chat for 15 minutes.

In Princeton, they’ve started a new online book discussion group. They have talks and lectures with other community partners. They’ve launched a new public calendar format that incorporates events throughout the city.

“Our marketing director has done a wonderful job engaging with the community over social media,” says Justine Sprenger, a reference aide at Grand Forks Public Library in Grand Forks, North Dakota. “Along with virtual storytimes, we’ve implemented weekly videos from library staff such as “Tinker Tuesday” and ‘Whatcha Reading Wednesday.’ Even four of our seven book clubs are meeting online for the time being.”

Learning From This Experience

As challenging as this situation is, every library staffer I spoke with was able to find a silver lining, and all of them were able to see how the things they learned during this time would only make them stronger moving forward.

“Right now, we’re working on establishing a closer collaboration with the local schools and their summer reading programs,” says Pascale. “I see much more overlap in the two programs going forward. I hope this will encourage kids to participate in our program while having more fun doing required summer assignments.

“Also, I think this ordeal has helped us reach a portion of the population who didn’t really use the library before,” she adds. “By putting ourselves and our digital resources out there in a much more consistent way, we have brought in some new library users. We’ve had people contact us asking for new library cards or updating their expired cards. I hope they will continue to use our resources once we’re back open for business.”

“The challenges this is presenting for us,” says Kuver, “these challenges are some of the same challenges we had before the pandemic happened but they’ve just been elevated and brought into sharp focus for us. As we go through these changes, it’s really lifting all of our games. It’s really going to benefit us not only now but when all of this is over. We’re bringing our best foot forward right now in a way that is very inspiring for me personally and I think we’ll be better for it as we move forward.”

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