#StayingHome: Library Life and the Pandemic

How are you?

It’s been almost three weeks since our library closed to the public and two since I, and most of my coworkers, started working from home. It seems like a lifetime, I won’t lie. We’ve all been thrown for a loop.

It’s hard to keep ourselves safe, take care of our families, wonder about unemployment, and think about supporting our communities, an integral part of public library work; all at the same time.

COVID-19 cases are just starting to pop up in Alaska, but sadly three Alaskans have already died as a result of the virus (as of 3/27/20). With a statewide population of about 737,500, and only 1,500 general hospital beds, keeping the number of people who get ill low is essential. Local and state officials continue to issue more restrictive health mandates as they use the latest research and data to prevent widespread sickness. My rural community, like many across the country, is served by a small hospital with limited resources to treat large groups of sick people. Fingers crossed that social distancing and these mandates will successfully limit the local effects of the pandemic. My heart goes out to those of you in communities that have been dealing with widespread illness and death already.

NOT Business As Usual

Since the library closure, first for a week and then until further notice, four of my coworkers have been recruited to work with the City’s Emergency Operations Center. For now they are helping with public information, IT, research and safety recommendations. The rest of us are identifying priorities and long term strategies for supporting our community outside of the library building.

We are not circulating any physical library materials right now in order to discourage groups of people gathering at the library and limit the sharing of materials that might carry the coronavirus. The library building, and what’s inside, are an important space for so many in Homer. Shutting down for an unknown period of time has made us look hard at key services we offer and how we can continue to be supportive in the near future; even without a building. It also makes us worry about our neighbors with no internet access, no home and no community.

During the last couple of weeks I’ve paused to a- get a handle on how long we are going to be closed (still uncertain, but for awhile), b- finish up reports and other paperwork and c-think intentionally about how to support families going forward. What does my community need and can I offer? My library, my community, my knowledge and my resources are not the same as yours might be. Let’s all do our best and get through this, ok?

My priorities include:

Connect – Maintain, and even strengthen, relationships with families and individuals in a time of social distancing. How do we help families connect with the library’s resources, make more high quality digital resources available, and use our resources to create conversation with youth and families? How do we help families (some for the first time) access basic services like food and shelter?

Learn – Schools are closed here at least until May 1. The school year in Homer ends on May 20 normally, so I don’t anticipate kids going back to school. Many teachers are working beyond overtime to provide engaging activities for kids and teens. How can we compliment what the schools are doing to support youth and families? What learning gaps can the library fill? Which learning experiences can we amplify (Mo Willems’ daily drawing sessions, or the WideOPENSchool, for example)? What services, like storytime, can we continue at a distance and what new opportunities can we create? What can we learn from each other and other libraries?

Collaborate – Our community of about 12,000 (including the service area) includes many organizations that support its overall health and vibrancy. As we find our footing, how can we continue to develop the strong partnerships and practice social distancing? How can we work with libraries around the state to share good ideas and be more effective?

Inform – The library and my coworkers are working hard to share accurate information about COVID-19 and its local impact. What does that mean in a community with varied access to the Internet and an unending amount of news and information, what I refer to as “noise”?

Advocate – Especially in times of hardship, what does advocacy look like? When we are having trouble focusing on anything beyond our own difficult reality, how do we look outwards? Do we buy food or other items from local businesses, donate to a regional food pantry, or speak up about national issues like digital inequity when learning is completely online? (My answer is yes to all of the above, if you can.)

These goals are not new, but how we meet them now just looks a bit different. Since we are trying out new kinds of programs and adding new resources or services with less staff, we are adding slowly and intentionally. It’s a marathon they say. I’ve never run a marathon, but I get the idea.

This is media mentorship on a grand scale. As usual, there are a lot more questions than answers.

Programming

Many librarians have taken their storytime, a foundational program in many libraries, to Facebook or YouTube. I agree that programs like storytime provide families social and emotional support in addition to learning experiences. So, I got to thinking. My singing voice was not meant for the internet so I decided to go old school.

With broadband access spotty in my community, I needed a way to provide equitable access to early literacy and the storytime experience. Instead of live video, I am partnering with our local public radio station, KBBI AM 890, to bring storytime to the air waves that reach far and wide here in Homer. Those with internet can stream the program and those without can tune in on the good old radio, still a key public service in rural Alaska.

One radio staff person and I will be in the station during the program, unless the situation changes and I have to start recording from home. I have an hour, so I’ll share some stories geared for a broad audience, create dance breaks between stories with recorded music from some of my favorite artists, and then chat with kids during a call-in at the end of the program. I love experiments and trying new things, so fingers crossed!

To prepare, I have been reading through books I either grabbed on my way out of the library before we closed, had in my home library, or are available on our digital library. The books I will share are not necessarily the ones I typically read in storytime at the library. Context matters! The stories won’t have the pictures to amplify the story’s ideas, so the text will be the star of the show.

Thankfully publishers have been generous with their permissions for educators and librarians to share a wide array of books during read alouds right now. Many of them are very supportive of the virtual storytimes happening across the Internet, so I contacted a few to clarify that my experience was included. (They said yes!)

The library’s StoryWalk is back (early)! Each month, a new picture book will grace the library’s walking trail. Families can practice social distancing while they support literacy and enjoy outdoor activity. (The pages are posted at least 6 feet apart because of the trail’s design.)

We’re working on other programming to replace the learning experiences that we typically offered kids after school and adults using, you guessed it, Zoom, and other platforms. An ASL Club, a coding club, a literary meet up and more are in the works. We’re figuring out how to keep stats, which audiences we will target when, etc. Summer programming, pandemic style, is still in the brain dump stage though. (You should see my bullet journal. It’s a mess.) More on that soon.

Library’s Digital Resources

Ebooks, digital audiobooks, games, digital magazines are in hot demand now. The plethora of free content is also at an all time high. In order to make the library’s digital resources more visible and highlight, or curate, some of the high quality digital learning platforms that are temporarily free and the virtual read alouds and art activities hosted by children’s media creators, I have been given editing powers for the youth sections of my library’s website. I’ll continue to write social media posts on behalf of the library about youth media, but the website editing is a new task for me.

I’ve spent the last few days adding content, slightly reorganizing the content and making it clearer how to access new resources, especially those with temporary access, while we’re closed. We’ve set up methods for getting a library card virtually, made it easy to reach staff at home, updated the event calendar, added more than 100 titles/copies for kids to the digital library (the entire juvenile fiction budget for 2020), shared key links with educators and families, and more. This doesn’t even include the official COVID-19 information being added almost daily by my coworkers.

What if…

In the midst of all this, as a staff we have also needed to be wise about succession planning. What happens if a staff member is sick or needs to care for a family member or worse? Who takes over their projects or tasks? How does one person know the status of a project or task that needs to be done? For starters, we articulated actual succession plans, particularly for the director and those responsible for particular departments, before we left the library. We’ve also instituted daily Zoom staff meetings (Monday – Friday) and turned to Basecamp to keep us organized. We’ve always planned for an earthquake or tsunami, not a pandemic, so we are all being creative, intentional (there is that word again), and articulate about what’s next. It’s a team effort.

With all the in-person conferences and workshops in the near future canceled, I’ve been adding a few virtual projects and meetups to my calendar. I look forward to learning from and collaborating with new colleagues. We’re all in this together. What’s in store for you and your library?

#stayhome