HHH: Virtual Branch

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If your library has a website, you’ve got a virtual, or digital, branch.

So what happens when all the library’s buildings are closed, the books are locked away on their shelves, the computers and printers are shut down, and the staff are sent home? Is the library gone? Is it really closed?

There may be a “virtual branch” sitting on the Web somewhere for people to find, but does that count? That’s just web pages with the library’s address and hours, maybe some text that no one really reads, right?

I don’t think so. The virtual branch is so much more. Especially right now.

Today’s highlight is the Virtual Branch.

Many might think that library closures mean that the library’s gone away. That the job is over, all the essential services have stopped, that staff will have nothing to do. That the virtual branch, the library’s online website, is merely a sad placeholder, a shuttered, boarded-up storefront, useless and defunct, with a message at the top announcing: “Sorry, we’re closed.”

I want those who think this to reconsider. Here’s what a virtual branch can be, should be, even when the buildings and physical collections are inaccessible.

Photo of a smiling woman
Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash


Here’s what I hope folks understand: the virtual branch is still the people.

It’s YOU. It’s your friendly, helpful staff. It’s actual living library workers still doing the work they would do in the physical location, but now virtually. Many of the crucial services the library provides continue on. Even when the library is closed, the virtual branch can be actively open. You’re still helping your community..

Here’s a little video I made explaining more about a virtual branch, albeit back in far less crisis-y times:

Right now our communities are going to need help. This is the time for action. Libraries respond.

Picture of determined looking librarian

How will you respond to the various, and sometimes dramatically different, circumstances facing your patrons? For example, in a community for a public library:

  • People will be bored and need entertainment and diversion.
  • People with kids at home will need support for home schooling and parenting.
  • People working from home will need help with remote office technology.
  • People will be learning new skills, for example: finally getting to their home improvement projects.
  • People will be out of work and need help with unemployment filing, job training, job search and applications.

It’s that last one—the area of workforce development—that I believe is the most crucial. Folks in these situations could previously go visit a public library for the needed technology, good connectivity, and digital literacy help from the staff, but now they’ll need it all virtually.

At a minimum, libraries should use their virtual branch to provide up-to-date resources and show their communities how to access the services they need. They should be active users of their existing social media—to promote their digital content but also things like reader’s advisory—or try becoming active on social media for the first time.

There’s also programming that can be shifted to digital, using Zoom, Facebook Live, and other tools . Here are some great examples I’ve seen so far:

  • virtual storytime *
  • virtual book club meetings
  • yoga classes
  • tech training
  • Q&A’s about genealogy research
  • virtual ukulele class 🙂

* Need resources on streaming storytime? Check out the third tab in Youth Services (YS) Consultant’s awesome spreadsheet, Texas YS COVID-19 Resources

Don’t forget: We can still talk to our patrons over the phone. Google Voice can provide phone numbers for staff to provide reference services from home. Also, I’ve heard from one library considering playing a recording of an audio book over the phone for patrons to call in and listen to.

I would like to add more to the idea that the virtual branch goes beyond just the phone, website, e-resources, and social media. Now is the time for libraries to partner with other agencies and organizations, get outside the library (not necessarily physically), and join with all the forces on the front line helping your community.

Here are just a few ideas:

  • Become reference librarians for other city/county organizations
  • Find other ways to provide patrons with Internet access who have none :
    • Track down those in your community offering free hotspots and circulate a local free WiFi map
    • Share free and low cost options for home Internet
  • Help facilitate access to telehealth.
  • Reach out to hospitals and determine if you can help. Do you have a 3D printer? There’s currently a widespread effort for maker spaces of all stripes, including libraries, to either donate 3D printers so faceguards can be printed, or print the faceguards themselves.
  • One library in Kentucky has set up its computers to run folding@home to add processing power for the study of COVID-19.
  • Assist with the 2020 Census – a critical tool to help support your community and ensure your patrons get counted and are seen.
  • Use video chat to be virtually present while patrons fill out census, do their taxes, get set up for telehealth, etc. Use screenshare if they’re struggling and move their mouse for them – just as you might do if you were sitting next to them physically at a library computer.

Final thought – from David Lee King:

Your library isn’t a building. It’s not a bunch of books. It’s made up of people and content. And interacting with people and content doesn’t have to stop just because the building is closed.

You can hear from him, plus several other library luminaries, in the recording of a free ALA webinar that happened yesterday (March 26) all about virtual services during the pandemic:

The recording is now available:

Recording: AL-Live- Libraries and COVID-19: Providing Virtual Services

Length: 1 hour

Description: Your physical library may be closed, but you can still offer direct services to your patrons. With many resources available digitally, and with the ability to provide reference via phone, chat, and virtual meeting tools, your services do not have to halt at a time when they are more important than ever. Please join our expert panel on Thursday, March 26 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern as they offer practical insights on how to make your virtual tools more efficient and how to get them off the ground if they weren’t being provided previously.

I want you all to know that Henry is here. Please keep in touch, and let me know how you’re doing and whether I can be of help! We’re all in this together and we’re going to get through this. And if you are a Texas public library with a Ploud website and need anything, I’m your man.


4 thoughts on “HHH: Virtual Branch

  1. Hi Henry and thanks. I am going to try to read a book and put it on facebook. I don’t know what I am doing but I have a teenager who can help. I know it has to be short.

  2. Hello Henry,
    Do you have any specific websites you would recommend for leading a virtual book club using zoom? I’ve only attended one before but have not lead one.

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