Local librarians got creative as COVID-19 wrecked plans for summer programs

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Posted August 14, 2020 | By Bill Thompson, Deputy Editor

Headquarters-Ocala Public Library children’s services librarian Jessica Parsons reading a story book to families/children during a virtual summer program.

COVID-19-necessary restrictions on social distancing and mass gatherings have affected more than just churches, bars, restaurants, movie theaters and other crowd-friendly venues.

The precautions also have been tough on one place that typically flourishes during summer: Marion County’s public library system.

As the coronavirus wormed its way deeper into our social lives, library staffers were forced to become creative to fill the void created when scheduled programs were canceled.

One example was “Marion County Reads: A Million Minutes of Reading.”

Librarians improvised with a program to challenge patrons of all ages to collectively read for 1 million minutes between June 15 and July 31, and provided logs for them to keep track.

On Aug. 7, the results were tallied: participants read a total of 1,179,566 minutes. Modestly valued gift cards were given to high achievers.

In other words, these book enthusiasts combined to fit the equivalent of 819 days of reading into six weeks.

“Since we knew were not going to be able to do the traditional programs, our staff decided to initiate the Million Minutes of Reading challenge,” explained Karen Jensen, the library system’s community liaison.

“Everyone was kind of holding their breath. But we were thrilled that we surpassed 1 million minutes of reading and excited that, in the midst of a very challenging summer, they chalked up those reading minutes.”

Yet that was not all that was needed to meet the coronavirus challenge.

Each June and July the library creates a theme to promote summertime reading.

For 2020, the theme was “Imagine Your Story.” But as COVID-19 restrictions limited in-person participation, Jensen said, it was the library staff who had to imagine different ways to reach the public – utilizing social media to do so.

“In the midst of addressing the realities of COVID-19, and in the interest of still making some quality programming available, we decided to go the virtual route,” Jensen said. “It was a rapid response to a need that we knew existed.”

Library data help explain.

During June and July of 2019, adult patrons borrowed 96,151 books, but for the same period this year that fell to 84,827, a decrease of 12 percent.

Last summer young adults checked out 6,050 books, compared to 4,480 this summer, down 26 percent.

But children’s borrowing habits exhibited the most dramatic drop.

In summer 2019, children took home 46,743 books. This year, that plunged to 27,868, or 40 percent below last year.

To compensate for the decline in library visits, librarians each Monday began posting Facebook videos of varying length primarily, but not always, targeted at children or their parents.

Their efforts included storytelling and book discussions, how-to tips for things like crafts and gardening, science experiments featuring typical household products, writing tips and more.

For adults, book clubs met via Zoom.

“It really grew as our staff became much more engaged and excited about this effort,” Jenson noted. “I’m never surprised at how creative our library staff are in bringing really educational and entertaining programming to the public. But this definitely hiked that bar up to a new level that I think was pretty incredible.” 

“The response that we got from those who visited our virtual efforts was a very positive,” she added. “The fact that we were able to respond in the way that we did, and still provide curbside service, we heard from so many people how it was just a lifeline to them.”

Outreach efforts will continue in the fall, and because COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere soon, they will be limited by recommended safety parameters. 

Jensen said the staff wants the public to know for the fall that the library remains open. But county libraries will also offer some “very carefully managed” in-person programming, as well as virtual initiatives.

For example, library staff will offer “Fresh Air Story Time” at Ocala/Marion County Veterans Memorial Park, where librarians will gather with participants under a park pavilion to share a book. That begins in September.

Jensen said the library is requesting those interested in this or other in-person programs – such as a discussion of the history of railroads in Marion County or “Talk Like a Pirate Day” for youngsters – call the library to pre-register. That’s so staffers know how to keep people separated.

“We are open to the public, and then we are just going to be as innovative as we can with programming while adhering to safe, social-distancing practices,” Jensen said.

“One of the great things about public libraries that probably most people realize is that over the years we have evolved to where technology is something we have embraced quickly.”

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