Libraries reaching out to their patrons and communities: interviews with our home libraries

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Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash

As COVID-19 has closed the physical buildings of many libraries throughout Texas, library workers have been increasingly innovative in communicating with their patrons and communities. On Thursday April 23, you can join Texas State Librarian Mark Smith and Assistant State Librarian Gloria Meraz for a discussion on strategies for planning and communicating the work of libraries during the current health crisis.

As patrons of community libraries ourselves, members of the Continuing Education and Consulting team have been on the receiving end of many of these messages! Last week, I had the chance to interview library workers from some of our home libraries to discuss how they are communicating with their patrons.

Special thanks to:

Tell us a little about the status of your library. Are you currently physically closed to the public?

Bee Cave Public Library: Bee Cave Public Library is closed to the public and all staff are working at home.

Cedar Park Public Library: Our library has been closed to the public since March 17, but we are still able to have limited staff in the building for core services. A large number of staff are working remotely.

Lake Travis Community Library: We are currently closed to the public with no set date to reopen. Staff are working remotely from home and are available by email. We have a message system, Gabbie, which allows our patrons to contact us through text messaging. We are also taking advantage of our social media channels, specifically Facebook and Instagram to answer questions and comments. 

Westbank Community Library: Westbank Libraries are closed to the public, and our staff are all working from home. We are planning to implement reserve and pickup as soon as Travis County lessens stay-home restrictions and we feel it is safe enough to do. We are anticipating a very different sort of summer!

How are you reaching out to your patrons remotely? How often are you reaching out?

Bee Cave Public Library: We are continuing our usual forms of outreach and have added a few new ones. We’ve sent out  our newsletter at the usual time of the month, filled with tips for finding free resources online that publishers and others are making available, ideas for activities to do with the kids, reminders about resources we always offer like TumbleBooks, Mango Language,. OverDrive, etc. Our storytime specialist is filming a short video each Friday with songs from Storytime, or activities like how to make shaker eggs, and sharing it on Facebook. We had already planned a social media campaign for April reprising our December #ReadAloneBeeCave (a spoof of the movie Home Alone). Now with the stay-at-home orders in place, we’re encouraging a different activity each week with our patrons. Last week was sending in photos of where/what you are reading, this week it’s been “shelfies” with people sending in photos of their bookshelf, including some adorable ones of toddlers sitting amidst a pile a board books! People seem more eager than ever to connect with their favorite library staff, so it’s been really fun to see their photos from home, and we’ve shared photos of our staff at their homes as well. Our book club is planning a Zoom call/meeting for next month.

Cedar Park Public Library: Since being closed, we have significantly increased our messaging, both via email blasts, social media, and our websites. For social media, we have multiple posts every day. For our emails, we use Savannah, which allows us to use targeted marketing to reach specific sub-groups of our users. We limit to 3 email campaigns a week for each sub-group. Our social media engagement and email opens are high, and email unsubscribes are pretty low. For emails and social media, we put out a variety of topics like library news updates, fun or entertaining content, storytimes and songs, links to instructional videos we’ve made, tips from our vendors (like hoopla’s Bonus Borrows), photo challenges, author mini-interviews, and more.

Lake Travis Community Library: Before closing we sent a bimonthly newsletter by email, now we send that newsletter out each week. As we adjust to working remotely we have made rapid changes to the way we serve our patrons so it feels essential to get information out as quickly as we can. We have also developed a YouTube page of resource videos made by staff and we continuing to reach out to patrons through our other social media channels. 

Westbank Community Library: Our newsletter is now going out once per week to share information people can act on related to the community, the virus, and new library services. We want people to know we are still here and still helping, and we try to share calming perspectives during a stressful time.

We are offering quite a few programs now through Zoom, with more added each week. We are also answering questions through email and text, helping people over Zoom, and posting lots of new content on Facebook and Youtube.

Are you offering any special services to your patrons during this time?

Bee Cave Public Library: We are not offering curbside pickup or anything like at this time, but are exploring the idea for when we gradually begin resuming operations.

Cedar Park Public Library: We set up a way for Cedar Park residents to register for a card online; they’ll simply need to finish registering in person within a month after we open again. This type of card will get the user access to all of our digital borrowing resources, as well as the databases we have. Expired cards can be renewed over the phone. Due dates and account expiration dates are being moved out as we have updates. We’ve also started offering virtual programs via Webex to maintain face-to-face contact with the community. We have storytimes for families with little ones, a craft club for adults, and book discussions, with more ideas in development.

Lake Travis Community Library: We are! We are so excited about our new online library card sign up process. Patrons can now fill out a form online to receive a library account number. This allows our patrons to access our electronic resources like our OverDrive digital library collection with ebooks, audiobooks, and magazines. We feel very fortunate that that ProQuest has provided remote access to Ancestry Library Edition for our patrons. And we also are promoting Tumblebook’s (currently) free online ebook and audiobook collection.

Another service that I would consider special is our new online Zoom meeting platform for hosting book clubs, tech help, cooking, crafting, and more! We have rapidly discovered that we can offer so much to our patrons via video/audio communication. Librarian Raj Kamat now holds a weekly Tech Help Q&A session where patrons can ask any tech related question that they have. Many questions are focused on how to manage and troubleshoot Zoom. Each online session includes a host and moderator so that there is always a staff member who can assist with the chat and other functions. Librarian Karen Ballinger recently hosted a successful origami craft class, which worked well because patrons just needed to find a few pieces of paper to participate.

Are you reaching out to your community outside of your patronage?

Bee Cave Public Library: We have been very actively engaged with our local business community. The Bee Cave Chamber of Commerce wanted to partner with our City and Economic Development Corporation to offer assistance to small businesses affected by COVID-19, and suggested the library staff be put in charge of creating a small business assistance center. Within a very short period of time and with a lot of help, we created  the Bee Cave Small Business Assistance Center. The intent is for us to act as a clearinghouse for information and connect business owners with resources, mentors, banks, etc. as we are able.

Library staff also worked on special projects for the City Manager identifying through our databases including Reference USA all of the businesses operating in our city limits, as well as creating social media feeds for the City similar to the ones the library was already operating for ourselves. We also were tasked with keeping the city website updated with announcements regarding the crisis, and collating and publishing lists of restaurants still operating with takeout.

Cedar Park Public Library: We have worked with the City, Chamber, and other partners to make sure our profile is out there as a resource for the community. For example, we have a dedicated button on the Chamber’s covid-19 resources page. All of our virtual programming and social media posts are available to everyone.

Lake Travis Community Library: Now that we have had some proven success with our online Zoom programming, we are starting to publicize more widely, including an upcoming piece in our local Lake Travis View newspaper. We’re also very fortunate to have online supporters who have shared our information within other groups, such as local neighborhood and school/parent Facebook groups.

Westbank Community Library:

  • We launched several new digital resources in January, and we have had to increase our limits and budgets for these as they are taking off.
  • Every week we are adding new online programs, including storytimes, book clubs, Qi Gong, Sheng Zhen, genealogy, writing, speaker presentations, and meditation. Our quilting and knitting groups are also meeting via Zoom.
  • Next week we will begin offering Zoom “desk hours” twice a day so people can drop in to ask a question. And on Mondays we will have a volunteer hour so our many volunteers can say hello.
  • We are regularly updating multiple curated information pages on our website (Coronavirus Information, Helpful Resources, What’s Open?, and Fun Things to Do While at Home) making useful links easy to find.
  • We now have online library card sign up.

How are you identifying the current needs of your patrons and community? 

Bee Cave Public Library: We haven’t undertaken any formal surveys, but have been in contact via email and through social media with many of our regulars.

Cedar Park Public Library: A lot of our good ideas have come from other libraries! We also listen to our users’ requests and suggestions for services and programs. Since digital usage has increased, we re-allocated some smaller print funds over to digital in order to boost our ability to provide the only thing people can check out now!

We are also collaborating with Central Texas area libraries about best practices and opportunities for how to adapt our Summer Reading Club program into the virtual world.

Lake Travis Community Library: We are gathering information from our newsletter to see which programs are generating the most interest. We are keeping statistics on program attendance. We are also managing statistics in our OverDrive collection by age range, genre, and format. And we are receiving some direct feedback from patrons and volunteers on programs and features they would like to see as well.

Westbank Community Library: Our outreach team is in contact with the schools, area businesses, the Chamber of Commerce, and our local Representatives. They are attending virtual meetings to learn what everyone is up to. They are working with school librarians to develop reading lists.

They are also continuing community interviews, designed to learn more about all of the organizations in our area in order to identify networking possibilities. This was an outgrowth of Harwood conversations. They are also gathering information that we are able to share in our newsletters. This month they are interviewing folks from Foster Angels and a local radio station.

What work is your library doing to ensure inclusive services during this time?

Bee Cave Public Library: Our library wifi is still accessible outside our building, but that’s about it.

Cedar Park Public Library: We’ve been relying on integrated inclusive services like YouTube’s closed captioning to make sure our messaging is available to everyone. When posting updates on our website, we’re mindful of creating content that functions well with assistive readers. This reminds me: we need to put out some posts about the adaptive fonts and styles available for digital reading! Libby and Hoopla offer a dyslexic-friendly font, and all three platforms allow the user to change the font size, background color, and margins.

Lake Travis Community Library: We are heavily focused on technology help right now, as this is the biggest barrier to participating in our programs and services. We have an amazing team of Tech Coach volunteers who are writing a weekly Tech Coach Corner column addressing the most common and challenging technology issues. They have provided a direct email address to answer questions and have offered one-on-one help over the phone, by email, or by video chat. We also host our weekly Tech Help session on Zoom to help as well. In programming we choosing activities that require materials that are likely accessible at home, take the origami class for example, or our upcoming cooking class to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! 

Westbank Community Library: Our Outside of the Box Children speaker series is continuing; the most recent talk was about engaging kids who are on the autistic spectrum through play. Our Education Conversations group offers parents an opportunity to discuss challenges they are facing (this month we are talking about screen time). A number of our staff have started weekly ASL lessons, which we hope to be offering to the community soon. Our digital collections are diverse in content, particularly Kanopy. And we are also promoting our digital foreign language materials and planning a program for conversation in other languages.

More than anything, we are finding that our online programs are attracting people that normally can’t come to the library for programs, many because of mobility issues, and some because of scheduling issues or family responsibilities. Online programs allow people to hear at a comfortable level, and the software gives every participant an equal space (though they can turn off their video if it makes them uncomfortable). We are also teaching a lot of our seniors to use ereaders, and they are happily discovering custom size print and audiobooks😊.

How are you communicating with your communities? Please share!

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