School-Public Library Partnerships Gain Strength During Pandemic

Librarians join forces to serve students better as distance learning stretches on.

Left: Billy Barron, Gwinnett County Public Library (GCPL) Learning Lab Specialist, with GCPL youth services specialist Donald Giacomini and Cicely Lewis at  the Black History Month Quiz Bowl.  Photo: Michael Doyne 

As society shut down and social distancing began due to COVID-19, libraries in schools and municipalities across the country closed, keeping a treasure trove of books, databases, movies, and music mostly out of reach of people exactly when many of them had extra time on their hands.

While learning how to navigate online work, many students also remain unaware of not only what public libraries have available online but also how to tap into these resources.

But in the best cases, these restrictions have allowed librarians to (virtually) point the way in districts throughout the country where school librarians are actively partnering with their municipal peers, and directing them to available virtual resources.

“Right before the shutdown, a couple of people from the [public] library came to meet us and we planned out what everyone could do,” says Toni Isaac, a media specialist at Troy High School, about 20 miles north of Detroit. The library made how-to videos with instructions for accessing its database and agreed to buy extra copies of ebooks for students to use.

When the shutdowns stretched on, Isaac thought the region’s annual Battle of the Books might be canceled. The event includes four high schools and, this year, she had booked three guest authors. Again, the Troy library jumped in to help—by allowing the schools to use its professional Zoom account. In addition to accessing added features, the event could last longer than an hour, Isaac says.

The event went off smoothly, attracting 50 people, about half the number a typical in-person event, she says. She attributes that to the fact that “a lot of students were Zoom fatigued” since they’d been having live sessions with teachers all week.

Overall, the school library’s dashboard shows usage has “skyrocketed,” Isaac says. “Students are relying more and more on digital.”

In many cases, the COVID-19 shutdowns came so swiftly there wasn’t time for school and municipal librarians to plan collaborations. In these situations, leaning on existing relationships has helped both serve students.


Gwinnett’s response

That’s the case in Gwinnett County, Georgia, where Donald Giacomini is the youth service specialist. Although the 15-branch Gwynnett County Public Library (GCPL) system serves a large area, counting one million residents and about 140 public schools, officials have been able to connect with students with the help of their school counterparts. Gwinnett officials held up to 60 presentations for the school systems’ media specialists explaining both what online resources the library has to offer and how students can access these materials.  School librarians relayed this information to students.

In Gwinnett County, as in many other areas, students are automatically signed up for a library card when they are registered at school. Additional policies, such as waiving fines until users turn 18, encourage student use of municipal libraries.

The cooperation goes both ways, Giacomini says. While the libraries’ summer reading program will be affected by the coronavirus, he says the municipal libraries are happy to publicize the schools’ efforts to give away 60,000 books this summer through various bookmobiles.

Working with SLJ School Librarian of the Year Cicely Lewis of Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, GCPL created a Beanstack account (an online reading program platform) to help area students complete Lewis’ Read Woke challenge. More than 600 people signed up, Giacomini says. The online service also makes data collection easy, he adds, allowing the library to help quantify its value to the community.

“Don is the greatest collaborator I could have ever wished for,” Lewis says. “He’s ready to do the work and he moves quick. Thank God we had this set up, kids were already doing it virtually.”

Rhode Island teamwork

An existing relationship in Cranston, RI, also helped alert students to digital resources, says Park View Middle School librarian Stephanie Mills (pictured, right). Because she had worked with Cranston Public Library teen librarian Alyssa Taft (left) already, Mills was able to let her students know how to download ebooks right away. More recently, she created a video to explain how the public library’s new curbside pickup will work.

“Direct student interaction was so important,” Taft says, adding that Mills let students know about virtual events and a Q+A session being held on Facebook. “We got a huge reaction.”

Another common theme of these partnerships: Both sides expect them to become more robust when libraries and schools reopen, whenever that is.

“One hundred percent, this crisis has really heightened electronic resources in public libraries," Giacomini says. "Our past relationship [with school libraries] has helped. Once we see the light of day on the other side, we’ll see an uptick in digital usage.”

Lewis agrees. “I know we are here to support each other. We are a team. I’m definitely going to expand working with them. I can have a bigger impact.”

Wayne D’Orio has covered education for 10 years.




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