Staff find new ways to bring library resources to patrons

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Due to COVID-19 closures, staff at local libraries are finding new ways to connect and share resources with patrons. McGregor Public Library Director Michelle Pettit has hosted several book talks, which are available on Facebook.

Murphy Helwig Library, in Monona, live streams Story Time with Sherman, the library’s popular six-foot-tall stuffed giraffe, on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Pictured is library director Heidi Landt next to (a portion of) Sherman.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Local libraries are one of the major social and educational hubs of their towns, providing not just reading and reference materials, but internet access and valuable connections between community members. When the buildings were forced to close to the public last month to help limit the spread of COVID-19, that never changed. Staff simply found different ways to bring the library—and all its resources—to patrons.

“It’s hard not to be able to do what you’re used to, so we had to look for more ways we can do things,” said McGregor Public Library Director Michelle Pettit. “When you can’t be in person and close to each other, how do you connect?”

One way was by informing patrons about Bridges, Iowa’s e-library system. The site is accessible from participating library web pages, and people can log in by selecting their home library and providing a library card number.

“Anyone with devices can connect to Bridges and borrow books for free,” Pettit said. “You can borrow e-books and audio books for two weeks. I’m glad we have that.”

This is available for patrons of Murphy Helwig Library, in Monona, as well.

“We’ve definitely noticed an increase in our e-service, which is great,” said library director Heidi Landt.

Staff in Monona have also been offering no-contact curbside pickup. Patrons can call or email ahead, and staff will have books safely waiting outside. Landt said it’s worked well, and people have been appreciative.

“For a lot of our patrons, this is what they do—they read books,” she said. “They can’t have their card clubs and other social things, but they can still have books.”

Another curbside feature library-goers have taken advantage of is public Wi-Fi access. Landt said it’s not uncommon to see people sitting in their cars, or even lounging on the sidewalk, outside the library.

“They’re all social distancing,” she noted.

At the McGregor Library, Pettit said they’ve noticed a 55 percent jump in new Wi-Fi users over the past month.

“I’ve seen all ages,” she shared. “Outside the library, you can still reach it. There’s no password, and it’s always on.”

The internet connection isn’t strong enough to stream movies, she added, but it’s helpful for people checking email or filing for unemployment.

The internet has been an important resource for library staff too. Over the past month, they’ve used social media to share book talks and story times—a new way to engage readers of all ages.

Murphy Helwig Library has offered a live story time for kids on its Facebook page every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, at 1 p.m. The events feature the library’s popular six-foot-tall stuffed giraffe, Sherman, who sits next to Landt or library assistant Susan Trappe as they read a children’s book.

“The kids love Sherman,” Landt said. “He’s been in the window, and people can wave at him when they go by. We wanted them to know he’s here and he misses you.”

Landt said her two adult daughters, who are both serving in the military, have enjoyed tuning in to “Story Time with Sherman.”

“They say it’s strangely comforting,” she remarked.

All books are shared with permission from publishers, which can get tricky. Videos can’t be archived for future use.

“Each publisher has different rules,” Landt said. “They’re normally not quite as flexible, but they’re offering more concessions now.”

McGregor’s children’s librarian, Jane Lundquist, has set up a special group on the library’s Facebook page. Families can request permission to join and access her weekly story times for kids.

“I do a story, and there’s an activity with it too,” she explained, “like planting green beans, playing with mud or making a crown.”

Lundquist records the videos herself, from her kitchen. It’s important to have good lighting so viewers can see page details well, she noted. A recipe book holder helps her keep the books steady.

Reading without a physical audience has been interesting. She’s opted to keep stories and activities brief, yet engaging.

“I want stories that motivate kids to do activities, to encourage them to do things when they’re at home,” she said. “I’ve gotten some feedback from parents that the kids are enjoying it.”

Stephanie Jones, a local parent and McGregor Library Board member, said her kids have loved being part of the group.

“We are so grateful for her engaging storytelling and fun coordinating activities,” Jones shared.

“I like being able to stay connected with the kids,” said Lundquist. “This is a long time to go without seeing them.”

For older readers, the McGregor Library is posting a regular series of book talks hosted by Jones and Pettit. Jones, who is also a middle school language arts teacher at MFL MarMac, has been focusing on the young adult genre and provides content similar to what she normally shares with her students.

“At school, I book talk books almost everyday with my students, and I still wanted to find a way to continue that. Most of the time they are the books I am currently reading or have read in the past, but sometimes I hear about books from other readers and research enough about the story to be able to share without reading them myself,” Jones explained. “When I give classroom book talks, I use a mix of online book trailer videos, reviews and summaries from various sources to sell the story to students. The goal is to draw the students in enough that they add the books to their ‘Want to Read’ lists. When students have active ‘Want to Read’ lists, they are more likely to stay in the reading flow instead of falling into slumps between books and/or relying on others to choose books for them. If students don’t actually choose their own books, they are unlikely to connect to the story and therefore cannot truly engage and develop that pure enjoyment of reading.”

Since the library’s Facebook page reaches more than just area youth, Jones hopes the book talks will encourage others to serve as reading role models and engage in conversations about books. 

“The benefits of reading are limitless, but some of my favorite reasons to read include to relax, to be inspired, to learn, to spark creativity, to exercise the brain and to be entertained,” she shared.

Pettit is “book talking” selections that are more suitable for adults. The first two were inspirational, a reflection, she said, of where her head was at as the pandemic started.

“I wanted something positive,” she remarked.

The third book was the non-fiction title “The Rise of Wolf 8: Witnessing the Triumph of Yellowstone’s Underdog,” while the fourth was fantasy adventure “The Invisible Library.” 

“I try to keep it brief and give an overview of the book,” said Pettit. “I have a few words written down as a reminder, but I don’t want to prepare too much. I just try to talk. It’s very informal.”

“I miss seeing people face to face,” she added, “but this is one way people can still see us.”

Even without in-person connections, librarians are still hearing from patrons. Pettit said she’s continued to field history questions at the library, including three in one day recently.

“That makes me happy,” she quipped. “It’s one of my favorite things to do. I’d love to have even more.”

Landt said many library regulars call her, sometimes for no apparent reason. 

“For some, we’re their only conversation,” she said. “But we’re here for them either way.”

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