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For early learners, replacing library visits with digital resources is no small task

COURTESY WASHINGTON COUNTY COOPERATIVE LIBRARY SERVICES - Two children enjoy a library audiobook, courtesy of Washington County Cooperative Library Services, at home during the shutdowns of all county libraries during the COVID-19 pandemic. As libraries enter their fourth month with shuttered doors, staff from the Portland area's major library systems are attempting to digitally reconstruct library resources for kids and restore limited physical services for families without access to technology.

For early and elementary learners, library buildings have served as reservoirs of books and other resources for early literacy, hosting storytimes and peer-to-peer book clubs and offering craft kits, computers and even writing utensils such as chalk and colored pencils. Public libraries also provide resources related to Internet access and language learning to underserved communities, said Samantha Wikstrom, a children's librarian at the Tualatin Public Library.

Now bereft of physical space to assist patrons, however, libraries are playing catch-up to resume providing their previous services and avoid leaving marginalized communities behind. Libraries are important resource centers for childhood summer education, a concept critical to preventing knowledge regression among early learners and one that's especially crucial following months of online school.

Both Multnomah County Library (MCL) and Washington County Cooperative Library Services (WCCLS), the two largest library services in the metro region, have fortified digital programming efforts targeted at younger kids in the last few months. Librarians have converted in-person storytimes into pre-recorded broadcasts on Facebook Live, for example, and summer reading worksheets can be downloaded as PDFs.

Annie Lewis, MCL's Youth Services Coordinator, also said that the library is investing in expanding its digital collection across all branches. Beyond that, Wikstrom said she has been pointing patrons toward other web-based programs such as Tumble Books, a site with free, high-quality picture books, and Mango, a database used by WCCLS for foreign language instruction.

As of mid-June, MCL branches and libraries within WCCLS launched curbside pickup services, enabling patrons to place books on hold and receive those books in physical form via a socially distanced pick-up process at their library.

"A lot of what we hear from parents as we're starting with curbside pickup is 'we want physical books for our kids to read,'" said Kari Kunst, Youth Services Librarian at Tigard Public Library. "For a lot of our families, they're checking out 20, 30, 40 books a week for their kids."

Libraries have been challenged to provide inventive means of social engagement — alongside intellectual engagement — for kids currently estranged from many familiar faces and pastimes. Storytimes, Kunst said, retain a sense of normalcy for early learners by allowing them to see faces from pre-quarantine times.

Though digital, multilingual storytimes are still available — primarily in Spanish and Chinese at libraries within WCCLS and MCL — some monthly and bimonthly foreign language events have yet to make a comeback, which can be an impediment for parents trying to expose their young kids to other languages in a social environment.

Malisa Tep, a Hillsboro resident and mother of an 11-month-old infant, said she wanted to bring her daughter to Vietnamese storytimes at her local library, but those storytimes were canceled once the pandemic hit.

Parents have readily endorsed live virtual programming as a mechanism for making digital content, such as storytimes, more interactive and socially stimulating for their children, Kunst and Wikstrom said. According to the libraries' event calendars, individual MCL and WCCLS libraries typically host around three Zoom meetings per week, engaging kids in activities such as scavenger hunts and arts and crafts projects.

Even with libraries' best efforts at digital engagement, technology-deprived and low-income communities are at risk of being isolated from libraries' all-digital flow of information. In Washington and Multnomah counties, library staff have attempted to rectify digital equity gaps through partnerships with community organizations. Sherwood Public Library, for example, is working with Sherwood Family Resource Center, a nonprofit serving low-income Sherwood families, to deliver free books to underserved families, Youth Services Librarian Jaime Thoreson said. Library staff also stand outside the library two days a week and distribute free books to people passing by, an effort to create physical information channels for patrons. PMG FILE PHOTO: ASIA ALVAREZ ZELLER  - Allison Staley helps a family check out books at a parking lot library in Lake Oswego. Libraries are striving to provide access to books and storytimes for young children, despite being closed.

Being able to pick up physical materials also improves access by offering parents and kids a less technology-intensive route for acquiring books, Thoreson said. According to Wikstrom, Tualatin Public Library visits publicly subsidized housing complexes to distribute free books, cognizant of the fact that low-income families may not have the time, resources or sense of safety to visit their local library for physical books.

Multnomah County Library, Lewis said, has also been delivering free book bundles to school meal sites. Several libraries within WCCLS, including Sherwood, Tigard and Tualatin, have followed suit.

As library information and resources continue to shift online, Internet access and technological proficiency remain instrumental to removing access barriers for underprivileged families, said Jon Worona, Director of Content Strategy for MCL. MCL has plans in place to rapidly increase the number of Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots it lends out to the community.

"In the past, our biggest barrier has been the cost of doing that," Worona said. "But as we see now, the cost of not doing it is so impactful. We know that a lot of folks don't have Internet access at home or only have Internet access on their smartphone."

The plan is to deploy an initial batch of about 500 WiFi hotspots in areas where people face the greatest barriers to technology access, said Shawn Cunningham, communications director for MCL. "We also plan to begin loaning Chromebooks and/or laptops at the same time, with stock we have on hand," Cunningham noted.

Besides lending devices, providing tech help for parents without technological know-how has become necessary to ensure that kids and their families can access digital resources.

Fernando Martinez, a Northeast Portland resident who speaks English as a second language, said that the process of learning how to use technology to assist his elementary school-aged kids in summer learning has been difficult. Prior to one-on-one assistance from Andrew Nilsen, the Spanish Regional Technology Coordinator for MCL, library resources felt inaccessible for Martinez.

"From the library I haven't been using many resources," Martinez said. "I was looking through some, but I didn't really know how to use anything until Andrew just gave me access and told me how to use some of them. Right now, more than anything, it's reading material and reading skills that I'm looking [at] for my kid."

Shauna Muckle, a recent graduate of Jesuit High School, is one of two summer interns working for Amplify, a Metro-supported project aimed at elevating the voices of students from communities historically underrepresented in local newsrooms. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Amplifying voices

This story is possible because of Amplify, a community storytelling initiative of Pamplin Media Group and Metro, the Portland regional government. Amplify supports two summer internships for high school journalists in the Portland metro region to cover important community issues. The program aims to elevate the voices of student journalists from historically underrepresented groups, such as communities of color, low-income residents and others. Pamplin Media Group editors oversee the interns, and Metro plays no role in the editorial process. Read more at oregonmetro.gov/news.


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