During COVID, libraries had to go virtual. They aren't going back
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Forest Grove City Library faced a problem.
Libraries in Washington County, long seen as community gathering places, had shut their doors to keep the disease from spreading, but the need for community and social interaction was never more important.
People flocked to virtual meetings and online events to stay connected, and libraries followed suit. In Forest Grove, librarian Bob Abbey said the goal with some of the library's first virtual programs was simply to keep people engaged during an uncertain time.
Today, libraries are reopening for in-person services, but Abbey says virtual programming is here to stay.
Last August, he launched the library's first live stream, a conversation with New York Times best-selling author Jane Kirkpatrick, who lives in Central Oregon.
It was a smash hit.
"We had people from Michigan, we had people from Colorado, we had people from Oklahoma, who were watching," Abbey said. "It was like, 'Oh my gosh, this is kind of amazing.' These are not folks who would never be able to see this if we had it in our library — we would get a very small but enthusiastic local audience, but there's a lot of other people that we're not reaching. That, for me, was like, 'Ah, OK.'"
Online, the library is able to offer programs it never could in person, Abbey said. In August, a folk music band from Finland performed a digital concert for the library. In January, he had a virtual event with Oregon's current poet laureate Anis Mojgani. The event was attended by one of Mojgani's former teachers, who was watching and commenting online during the program from New Orleans.
Nothing can replace getting to meet with a favorite author in person, Abbey said, but for people with mobility issues or if people can't attend an event they planned to, virtual programs should be available.
"The other benefit of this is that there's an equity piece here," Abbey said. "It does allow folks who, for whatever reason, might not want to or be able to come out to a program in person to still participate."
Elizabeth Lopez, a librarian supervisor who oversees much of the Hillsboro Public Library's early literacy programs, said it initially felt odd reading books aloud in front of a camera, instead of a group of kids, but doing so allowed the library to create a permanent online inventory of storytime events.
Lopez also found that engagement among Spanish-speakers with programs and services increased, particularly for Hillsboro's "book a librarian" service, which offers tech support to patrons.
"A lot of the questions are around, like, trying to fill out a job application at this company and (someone) can't seem to figure out how to fill out the form on their website," Lopez said, adding that providing one-on-one help wherever someone is and whenever they want has been an important addition to the role the library plays in the community.
It's a similar story all across the county. In North Plains, where there's a shortage of preschools, librarians found that the digital shift allowed them to expand their kindergarten readiness programs. The classes help children with preschool in communities that struggle to transport kids to preschool outside the city.
"Live, interactive, online kindergarten readiness (and) preschool programming fills a need, said Robin Doughty, director of the North Plains Public Library. "(We) plan to continue these in a hybrid-style post-pandemic.
Lisa Tattersall, director of Washington County Cooperative Library Services, said that despite libraries starting to reopen, the "online events" category in the system's shared calendar is here to stay as libraries across the county expect people to continue attending programs online.
She said that while WCCLS didn't track virtual engagement across the system, the State Library of Oregon is expected to collect such data from all public libraries across the state as part of its annual statistical report later this year.
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