National Library Week was forced to go digital this year. The American Library Association changed the original theme from “Find Your Place At The Library” to “Find The Library At Your Place” to bring attention to how libraries are still open online during the coronavirus pandemic.
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Hamden Public Library hosted its first virtual open mic night on Zoom during National Library Week.
The night brought together poets, comedians, singers and performers of all ages for the occasion. With a plastic mic in hand, a young girl greeted the audience with a cheerful, “Hello, everybody!” then opened the show with two songs.
The digital gathering is just one example of what the library has been doing to engage its patrons since statewide coronavirus mandates closed the more than 240 libraries and branches that serve Connecticut’s 169 towns.
“We started by having daily staff meetings just so that we could see each other’s faces and for our morale,” said Melissa Canham-Clyne, Hamden Public Library’s director. “Then we quickly learned—well, if we need this then our patrons must need a chance to see each other and a chance to be heard and a chance to talk to another human, so we started Zoom programs.”
Each week, books are up for discussion: books that have been turned into movies, books and coffee, books everybody seems to be reading.
On the library’s YouTube page, children can tune in for story time or watch gardening activities. The library reallocated money to expand streaming services for music and movies and “beef up” their collection of audio and e-books.
“All the big publishing houses released their copyright permissions so that children’s librarians could actually do virtual storytimes for kids,” Canham-Clyne said.
While offering online programming and resources has increased the library’s digital presence and created new ways for the community and staff to stay connected, Canham-Clyne said it’s nothing like engaging with people in person.
“It's really hard because you get to know people's faces, you get to know their names, you get to know their stories; it's very hard, we miss them, we miss our people,” she said. “It’s probably the biggest hit to our morale, is knowing that we are not there on a daily basis to serve these people.”
Early on, Canham-Clyne’s phone would ring frequently. On the other end of the line were people asking—When would the like library reopen? She said people pleaded with her to let them come to use the internet, many who wanted to apply for jobs.
“Part of me was like yeah sure I’ll sneak you into the library so you can use the computer but I know I can’t do that without it being a direct violation of so many things,” Canham-Clyne said. “It’s heartbreaking and we want to get back, especially given the unemployment in the state and in our region, we want to get back there so we can start helping people in that way again.”
The library has been able to retain all of its staff, something that Canham-Clyne said is invaluable as they work together as a team during the pandemic.
“That’s been amazing to watch people grow and get out of their comfort zone and work together to do that,” she said of her multi-generational staff. “I feel so fortunate to be able to work with my staff this way. Everybody’s talents are out there, everybody’s anxieties are out there…and I’m like 'God, this is a great team and this is a team that’s dedicated to the public, they really want to serve people.'”
In conversations she’s had with other librarians throughout the state, Canham-Clyne said that what’s apparent is that different libraries have different capacities. Not all libraries, especially the smaller ones with limited budgets, are able to use technology as quickly and easily or have enough staff to create and maintain digital programming initiatives.
“I don’t know if libraries have ever truly been about books. Libraries are about people and about connecting people to each other,” Canham-Clyne said. “Putting people in a social sphere where everything is open for consideration. That’s always been one of my goals of librarianship is to increase understanding of what it means to be human and to break down the barriers that keep us from actually thriving as communities.”