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How Libraries Stretch Their Capabilities to Serve Kids During a Pandemic

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A STEAM greeting card project hosted by the Chattanooga Public Library.  (Chattanooga Public Library/Youtube)

On a recent summer day, librarian Lyn Hunter posted a video to YouTube on how to make a weather thermometer using a straw, rubbing alcohol and a bottle. Hunter and her colleague Rachel Krumenacker at the Chattanooga Public Library in Chattanooga, Tennessee, had filmed the DIY craft on a Zoom call from their respective living rooms. They posted it to the library’s YouTube channel as part of their new summer programming, the majority of which is taking place online due to COVID-19. 

“The idea was that Rachel would lead me in a craft that I didn’t know how to do, so the kids get the dynamic back-and-forth of someone learning how to do something,” said Hunter, who is the youth services librarian. “We modeled social distancing, and filmed an overhead view so you can see what her hands are doing. And we put it on YouTube to make it as easy as possible to access.” 

The craft videos are part of the Chattanooga Public Libraries’ summer program for kids, called Make. Play. Read. Learn., all of which is happening online. Usually, the library’s summer program is like what Christmas is for retail stores—what they spend the whole year planning for. But this year the STEM projects, maker space designs and story hours that usually take place within the library’s walls have moved online, and the library itself has found itself innovating quickly to meet the needs of their community. “Make. Play. Read. Learn.” includes reading challenges, craft projects, and games where students can earn digital badges online. 

Across the nation, libraries are stepping up in a time of crisis. This summer, as communities continue to deal with COVID-19, both public libraries and school libraries are innovating new ways to provide services for communities that reach beyond physical books and buildings. One of libraries’ main goals has been to help children, many of whom have already missed out on a lot, stay engaged, reading and learning at a time when they can’t physically be in the building. School libraries have become tech hubs for educators teaching from home, while public libraries have worked to expand access to the internet, with many keeping their building’s WiFi on even when buildings were closed, so patrons can get internet access from the parking lot. Community events like story hours, maker spaces, and summer camps have moved online for easy access, and librarians are featuring themselves online, reading books and doing crafts, to stay connected. 


In return, the public is leaning more on libraries to support their kids during the pandemic. Before coronavirus forced school and business closures, Americans already viewed libraries as essential to communities. But since shutdowns began back in March, use of library services has increased sharply. Digital book loans have skyrocketed, with children’s e-book checkouts more than doubling since the COVID-19 closures began, according to a report from NPR. A majority of libraries have made borrowing digital media easier by relaxing and extending online renewal policies, offering a wider range of ebooks and streaming media, and increased virtual programming, according to a Public Library Association survey

Though it doesn’t look like it has in years before, what’s important is that the library is still there for kids, said Lee Hope, director of children’s services in Chattanooga. “How[ever] we can support families, whatever the model looks like, is what we want to do,” she said.  

Providing essential services in a time of distance and upheaval 

One of the library’s key missions is to provide services to entire communities, regardless of background or socioeconomic status. And during tumultuous times, the need for information, access to literacy, and digital access have become even greater. 

For schools that closed and moved to online learning due to the coronavirus, digital access became a necessity overnight. School libraries had always been central to digital access for the entire school, and when learning moved online they became tech hubs for both teachers and students. The librarians at Leander Independent School District in suburban Austin, Texas, say their “front line” relationships helping teachers connect to printers and setting up laptops in classrooms just shifted when learning moved online. Librarians were instrumental in helping guide teachers in those first weeks, said Leander district library coordinator Becky Calzada, sitting in on staff meetings, helping set up Google classrooms and Zoom calls, and answering copyright questions and curating digital resources.

 “Everyone in the school turns to you,” when dealing with computers and setting up online learning, said Four Points Middle School librarian April Stone. “Librarians stepped in to help teachers navigate those new tools and shift what they were doing physically versus virtually. We were always on the front lines for campus tech anyway, and it’s the librarians helping not only navigate Zoom, but also best practices on how to use the tools.” 

At the San Francisco Public Library, family engagement specialist Christina Mitra has invested heavily in developing deep lines of digital communication with families through a targeted newsletter and their social media channels. The newsletter keeps families informed of upcoming digital events and services, and keeps kids reading and learning with “play date at home” ideas, links to other online happenings for kids, and of course, curated book lists in several languages. Named Library Journal’s 2018 “Library of the Year” for their emphasis on “human touch,” Mitra said in a webinar that the library is striving for the same feeling of “connected community” even when families can’t be together in library buildings. 

For St. Louis, Missouri, kids, the diverse and wide-ranging menu of summer camp offerings provided by the St. Louis Public Library have moved completely online. After struggling with what to do about the digital divide, and a parent survey showing that families were interested in digital camps, program coordinator Jenny Song said the library decided to move forward with digital programming to help parents out with long summer days at home. Families can pick up a Chromebook and hot spot from the library. Joining with local community arts groups and organizations, the library was able to provide 54 of the original 70 in-person camps they had planned for. For some of the more popular camps, like ukelele and clay creations, kids receive a free ukulele or box of clay in the mail, which adds to the excitement. Their well-attended 2-hour Hogwarts camp, featuring Dumbledore guest appearances and magic, gives Harry Potter fanatics a chance to “geek out” over their favorite books. 

“Summer slide is something we are really conscious of,” Song said. “We want to make sure that everybody in our community has access, so all of our camps are free. Kids get to have fun and it’s something exciting they can do at home. But at the same time, they’re not stopping their learning and forgetting everything from the school year.” 

When historic events collide  

Librarians have also worked to support students as national crises compounded—not just the effects of coronavirus, but the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests for racial justice that happened while many were still stuck at home. 

Vihn Tran (Courtesy of Vihn Tran)

School librarian Vinh Tran at Edward Hynes Charter School, a prek-8 school in New Orleans, Louisiana, had been meeting with students throughout school closures in the spring, doing online read-alouds and assisting teachers with online lessons. But George Floyd’s murder happened right before their summer school program began, and Tran felt like she needed to address it on the very first day with her students. At the eleventh hour, she scrapped her carefully crafted lesson plans and decided instead to read The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander to some of the older students, even though they’d read it earlier that year. 

“I wanted them to know they didn’t have to ignore all the stuff that was happening in the world,” Tran said on a Zoom call. “There was space here to discuss, process, and explore these issues. It's important for kids to know they are seen, they matter, and that whatever they're feeling is valid.”

School librarians are also making connections on social media during this time of social and cultural upheaval, sharing tips and support with fellow librarians. When schools closed, Julie Stivers, a middle school librarian in Raleigh, North Carolina, sent out a tweet asking if other librarians wanted to brainstorm solutions to the challenges they were up against, like digital access. Using the hashtag #LibCollab, Stivers and another librarian, Kathryn Cole, created a professional learning community that began by discussing online learning but soon moved to Black Lives Matter, and how libraries can promote inclusivity and anti-racism. 

Preparing for the future, whatever that might look like 

Librarians interviewed for this story agreed that, whether they work inside schools or in public libraries, they’re unsure of what the future holds with regards to the autumn and back-to-school. Most librarians are spending the summer preparing for a variety of scenarios, in which libraries are open, partially open, or staying digital. 

Libraries as a whole are also reflecting on how they can better serve the public in uncertain times. At the American Library Association’s virtual conference in June, executive director Tracie D. Hall, the first African-American to hold that office in the association’s history, called for a three-pronged approach for libraries to address their communities’ current challenges: the need for universal broadband, the diversification of libraries, and a broader, stronger base of library funding. 

“Let our legacy be justice,” Hall told librarians on the conference’s Zoom call. “When I say let our legacy be justice, I am inviting us to explore the construct of the library as both the vehicle and driver of justice, as both a means to justice and an arbiter.”

Librarians predict that after rolling closures and the move to greater digital access, things will never be the same. Lessons learned during pandemic closures will stay with them long after COVID-19 is no longer a threat, with a focus on increased access to digital materials staying on as part of the libraries’ core mission to serve communities equally.


“We stepped up and did things differently, immediately,” said Mary Keeling, president of the American Association of School Librarians, on the quick transfer to digital service. “Libraries aren’t closed, we are still open and providing services. What’s closed are the buildings.” 

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