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DIY videos, Black Lives Matter reading lists and laptop checkouts buoy local libraries’ summer programs during COVID-19 closure

CRPL: End of Summer Dare Celebration

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Teen Advisory Board alumni Harry and Anna visit the Coralville Public Library during their 2020 summer reading program. — Coralville Public Library Teens on Facebook

When local libraries closed their doors in March due to COVID-19, it was unclear what would happen to their popular summer reading programs. With the duration of COVID-19-related closures unknown and summer reading program plans nearly solidified, local libraries had limited time and information to decide if summer programs would continue this year, and if so, what they would look like.

Angela Pilkington, children’s services coordinator at the Iowa City Public Library, said the decision to move their summer reading program online felt drastic, but says it’s one she’s proud of. Going virtual kept both the staff and community safe, she said, noting a normal summer day at ICPL pre-pandemic could bring upwards of 3,000 people through the doors.

“It was a gamble that we took with everything in this pandemic, not knowing,” Pilkington said. “I am positive that I had people that didn’t agree with it at the time and that’s OK. Right now it’s paid off … that everyone was safe and we weren’t scrambling at the last minute to switch everything over to virtual.”

For many local libraries, summer reading program planning begins several months in advance. At ICPL, it starts as early as September; when COVID-19 was first detected in Iowa in early March, summer reading program plans were nearly finished.

ICPL had roughly two and a half weeks to completely remake their program; Pilkington said changes included getting new artwork and fliers and adapting aspects like reading logs and in-person events to make the virtual switch. Cedar Rapids Public Library and Coralville Public Library were in similar situations, both having just a couple weeks to revamp their programs.

Kevin Delecki, programming manager at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, said the library had three weeks to reimagine their summer reading program, Summer Dare, which he described as “an experiential, intergenerational program.” Summer Dare combines traditional summer reading program elements like reading logs paired with experiences which get people out of their “usual bubble,” according to Delecki. Summer Dare is designed for all ages, which encourages people to participate as a family.

Revamping Summer Dare included changing or canceling the nearly 400 in-person programs that had been planned and finalized by February. (CRPL also moved their summer camps, which were new this summer, online.) Delecki noted several challenges in making the quick switch, such as producing virtual programs with a team that had limited video production experience and increasing their social media usage.

On top of the technical challenges, library staffs worried about what engagement with the programs would look like.

“The big thing, and this has been a discussion we’ve had since the library buildings have closed, is really focusing as much as we can on providing equitable service,” Delecki said. “We know that our community does not all have the same access to resources, and so ensuring that we can get as much of the library out to the community as we can even if we can’t physically go out there … that’s still been a thing we’ve been highly aware of.”

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Worries over access to stable internet or internet-accessible devices were at the forefront of the discussion when making the virtual switch across the region. Coralville Public Library bought more hotspots and laptops to help with accessibility; CPL recently opened a small computer lab in the library basement that operates with social distancing rules.

Access aside, library staffs were still concerned about whether a program with no in-person activities held any draw for the community.

Karen Stierler, youth services assistant at CPL, has found it difficult to engage teens on Zoom. The teen summer reading program, which includes students in grades seven through 12, usually has three in-person events a week throughout the summer, made up of guests like Coralville Police officers or hands-on activities like painting pottery with Fired Up. Because of the hands-on aspect, Stierler said a lot of the programs originally planned couldn’t transfer to virtual.

This summer, the teen program has weekly Zoom programs and challenges that work towards prizes. Stierler said what she misses most about going virtual is not being able to see kids around the library. She said she tries to hand-deliver prizes to thee weekly challenge winners that live nearby to keep that connection.

“There’s a lot of fun things but it’s just different [this summer]. We don’t get to see the teens, and that’s my favorite part of the program, meeting especially all of the seventh graders,” Stierler said. “I try and keep in touch with them just so they feel like there’s a person out there.”

Annabel Hendrickson, a volunteer with the CPL Teen Advisory Board, was surprised when told the summer reading program would go virtual, but has been happy with how it’s turned out. Teen Advisory Board members are teen volunteers in grades seven through 12 that help with the planning and execution of the teen summer reading program. Although plans to expand the program were hindered by the virtual platform, Hendrickson said she was determined to keep the reading program going in some capacity.

“It’s especially important right now because everybody’s bored and it gives people something to do,” Hendrickson said.

Iowa City Public Library employee Mari Redington reads ‘Black is a Rainbow Color’ in a virtual storytime video, July 22, 2020. — ICPL on Facebook

“We kind of promote this ‘We don’t want people in front of screens all the time’ so it’s quite a conundrum,” said Pilkington, ICPL’s children’s services coordinator. “It’s like, ‘Here watch our story time,’ but we really want you reading the books and we really want kids to avoid the screens. We would rather be in-person doing our story times with the kids and the programming with the kids and doing the hands-on with them.”

Though going virtual was more a necessity than a choice, Pilkington said aspects of the new program have been well received by audiences old and new, such as the online reading logs and livestreamed adult crafts and book talks.

Sara Glenn, youth services coordinator at CPL, agreed that much is lost in the transition to virtual.

“With things online, there is a bit of detachment, both on their part and on ours,” Glenn wrote in an email. “Much relies on parent/caregiver involvement, which has always been the case, but with things being online, it is even more so. Additionally, because so many things are online now, we think there has been a saturation point reached. For younger children, there may also be the desire to limit all the screen time.”

However, Glenn appreciates that this summer has allowed CPL to take a step back and look into aspects of the summer reading program they may want to change in the future.

Delecki noted that while the shift to virtual caused changes to the program overall, reading is at the heart of the summer programs, and can be done safely from home.

“We really just want reading and learning to be a major focus this summer,” Delecki said, “even though we aren’t really encouraging it in person like we usually do, and just to keep people excited about reading and learning, about their library, about having those experiences as a family.”

CPL, in addition to curbside pick-up and the virtual reading program, have also provided reading lists online to recommend books related to current events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. The “Own Voices” reading list on ReadSquared, the online summer reading program website, is a curated list of books from authors representing a range of voices. The library’s catalog also has books related to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ issues listed for various ages.

“The books you read when you’re younger can shape your perspective,” Hendrickson said.

“The library is such a big part of the community,” volunteer Maddy Ephraim added. “It’s necessary to reflect what’s going on and how people feel.”

ICPL has also shared Black Lives Matter reading recommendations, and offers Try It Out Tuesdays, World Wednesdays and Sunday Fun Days provide kids with events throughout the week to engage with the library, including discussions and craft how-tos. Additionally, Pilkington said a story walk-up is being added to the children’s garden to engage kids without them going inside the library.

While summer reading programs look different this summer, Pilkington hopes kids remember that the public library is always there for them, no matter what.

“I hope they take away that the library is still fun and exciting and engaging, even when we can’t be in person,” Pilkington said. “Even though we’re not in person, we’re still thinking about them and still want to be their library.”


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