By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning
When public library buildings across the country shut down in March 2020 under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, youth services librarians and other library staff looked for new ways to make sure kids had access to books and literacy-building resources. This post offers a quick look at some of the creative ways libraries have approached this historic challenge: from virtual storytimes and book clubs to expanded digital collections, giveaway books, and elimination of overdue fines.
Whatever path your local library has taken, and whatever stage of reopening they are in during this difficult winter, I feel safe in saying their commitment to connecting kids and families with books is undimmed. If you haven’t checked in with your library lately, do! You may be surprised at how much they have to offer, even when traditional services are on hold.
Just as social and educational gatherings for adults migrated online in the spring, many library programs for kids did the same. From big cities like San Francisco and New York to tiny towns like Douglas and Bisbee in Arizona, library staff across North America harnessed technology to continue reaching out to children and families with storytimes and other offerings. Along with sharing books and building early literacy skills, seeing familiar faces and taking part in familiar routines gave families a much-needed sense of continuity and connection.
For older kids and teens, many library book clubs went virtual, with some offering physical copies of book selections and others relying on eBooks. Still others have introduced online book discussions that don’t focus on a specific book at all, but let readers share whatever they happen to be reading.
Although libraries and library staff were quick to implement these changes, they couldn’t have done it alone. To facilitate storytimes, publishers (including Free Spirit) helped by extending permissions for online read-alouds by educators and librarians, and School Library Journal helped by compiling and updating a comprehensive guide to these permissions that would be difficult for individuals to track on their own.
State libraries across the country helped by offering grant support, often made possible by Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, for libraries that needed equipment to start offering virtual programs. Here in Arizona, dozens of small and midsize libraries received virtual programming kits sponsored by the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records.
In addition to starting virtual programs, public libraries worked to expand eBook and digital audiobook collections for all ages. Part of this boost came from shifting libraries’ existing book budgets, but again, publishers and library vendors played a big part.
In my own small library system, our collection of digital titles for young people more than doubled between December 2019 and December 2020, and more than six hundred of those new books were provided at no charge by publishers in cooperation with our eBook vendor, OverDrive. Checkouts of digital books for kids and teens more than tripled during the same period, so this additional content was very much appreciated.
The shift to virtual programs and greater emphasis on access to digital books has been complicated by a long-standing effort to minimize screen time for young children, and the fact that many children and families lack reliable internet access. In light of these considerations, libraries have also been working hard to get physical books and activities into children’s hands.
Grab-and-Go: Curbside Pickup and Beyond
For children—especially young children—eBooks can feel like a poor substitute for “real” paper books. In April and May 2020, as libraries introduced curbside pickup for library materials, ensuring access for the youngest library users was a top priority. Since many parents and caregivers traditionally found kids’ books by browsing shelves and displays, rather than searching for particular authors or subjects, as they might for their own reading materials, some libraries began offering themed book bundles and other ways to simplify finding new books.
At Durango Public Library in Colorado, this service is available for all ages. It is called “Hold Shelf Surprise.” Readers are invited to share information about their interests, and library staff will select up to ten items for them to pick up. The library also prepares personalized reading lists for all ages, by request.
These services take different forms in different libraries, but even if your library doesn’t advertise a service along these lines, library staff are generally glad to help with book selection as time allows.
Another way libraries have found to connect kids and books is offering free books for children and teens to keep, building their home libraries. The Copper Queen Library in Bisbee, Arizona, mailed a free book each week to every child participating in its 2020 summer reading program. Rural libraries in the area also provided giveaway books to summer readers, handing them out each week along with sack lunches and science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM)–themed activity kits. In both cases, local programming budgets were supplemented with grant funds and support from the Arizona State Library.
Helping Fill the Gaps
Of course, children can become readers and enthusiastic learners only if their basic needs are being met. That is a much larger task than libraries can hope to accomplish—and I would argue that it is one of the great tasks facing the country as a whole—but that doesn’t stop libraries from trying to do their part.
As schools and libraries closed in the spring of 2020, many libraries introduced grab-and-go food programs for kids and teens, or they scaled up existing programs to meet the looming need. Pima County Public Library, based in Tucson, worked with partners to supercharge an existing food program. Between April and July, the library system provided more than 48,500 snacks, meal kits, and produce boxes for residents of all ages.
The push for public libraries to eliminate daily fines for overdue materials has accelerated during the pandemic. Many libraries canceled overdue fines on all materials, and others did away with fines on children’s and teen items. This is an important step toward expanding access, because overdue fines have a disproportionate impact on children, people living in poverty, and underserved communities more broadly. You can view a growing map of libraries that have gone fine-free from the Urban Libraries Council here.
Putting It All Together
This post has offered a look at just a few of the ways libraries are responding to the pandemic and reaching beyond their walls to serve children and families. There are plenty of other exemplary programs and services happening in public libraries across the country and in your own neighborhood.
As you look for good books and learning opportunities for the children and teens you care about, make sure to check out your local library (and try to forgive my bad library pun).
Resources and Further Reading:
Association for Library Service to Children. Virtual Storytime Services Guide. ala.org/alsc/virtual-storytime-services-resource-guide.
Fallows Deborah. “Public Libraries’ Novel Response to a Novel Virus,” The Atlantic, March 31, 2020. theatlantic.com/notes/2020/03/public-libraries-novel-response-to-a-novel-virus/609058/.
Ishizuka, Kathy. “Simon & Schuster Joins Penguin Random House, Extending Open License to March 31,” School Library Journal, November 6, 2020. slj.com/?detailStory=remote-learning-still-the-norm-publishers-extend-permissions-for-read-alouds-COVID-19.
Kaplan, Melanie D. G. “How Libraries Are Writing a New Chapter During the Pandemic,” National Geographic, September 21, 2020. nationalgeographic.com/travel/2020/09/libraries-respond-to-coronavirus-with-book-bikes-and-virtual-festivals/.
Urban Libraries Council. Fine Free Libraries Map. urbanlibraries.org/resources/fine-free-map.
Amadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.
Amadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.
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