COVID-19 Is Forever Changing How Students Experience Libraries

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There’s a ritual that kicks off every new quarter in Michelle Luhtala’s library at New Canaan High School, one where English teachers send a gaggle of students through her doors to pick a new batch of books. It looked different when the campus reopened in mid-October, when she had students select their books through an online portal to be delivered to their classrooms the next day.

“We can’t have kids pluck books off the shelves,” says Luhtala, the library department chair for her Connecticut school and an expert in emerging library technology. “Typically droves of kids come down and get fresh books, and it’s a whole time for exchange and fun and conversation about what they read, and having to do that virtually is not nearly as fun as it is in person.”

At its core, librarians say the limitations imposed by COVID-19 have not fundamentally changed their roles. But how they execute their vision undoubtedly has. They are reimagining how to build a culture of reading for students who can no longer peruse the stacks or—in some cases—even set foot on campus.

A New Chapter for Book Borrowing

In the East Baton Rouge Parish School District, which spans more than 80 schools in Louisiana, Library Services Director Susan Gauthier laughs at a memory from six years ago when she told librarians to spend no more than 10 percent of their budget on ebooks. Even as schools there return to in-person instruction, Gauthier says libraries will continue relying on ebooks delivered through the platform MackinVIA.

“2020 has sent more students to our ebooks, it’s made me rethink collection development and those are things that are not going to change moving forward,” Gauthier says, adding that her district is purchasing ebooks in bulk to be shared among its elementary schools. “I don’t want to be in the situation where I was panicking because I didn’t know if I was going to have access for all of our students.”

Gauthier has been surprised that high schoolers have put up the most resistance to the ebook transition. She suspects one factor is the district’s focus on purchasing perpetual ebooks, ones libraries can access forever, over more popular titles that with restrictive licenses. Students may login to MackinVIA looking for Angie Thomas’ bestselling young adult novel “The Hate U Give,” but Gauthier has to weigh demand against the fact that the district would lose access to it after 26 borrows.

Luhtala says the purchasing model used by major publishers is proving to be a massive problem for schools everywhere. Most license their books for one to three years at a time, forcing schools to later pay full price again or lose access.

The model makes even less sense considering that libraries tailor their catalog to teachers’ curriculum, she says, so most books are only in-demand when their topic overlaps with what’s going on in the classroom. Take a biography of Andrew Carnegie. Even if she made it available on MackinVIA, Luhtala says students would only need it for three weeks out of the school year.

“While we are trying to buy books for the ebook collection, we can’t buy the ebooks we want because they’re published by the vendors that don’t offer a license that works in a K-12 space,” she says. “It shows they either don’t get what schools do or they don’t care that they can’t sell to K-12 schools. Neither of those are really great scenarios.”

Another challenge has been appealing to students who are set on checking out a physical book, Gauthier says, but there are signs of progress.

“Changing that mindset and that reading culture has been a challenge,” she says. “But what I’m excited to see is that the numbers are growing, and when they start growing in one school, they keep growing. So when we get that one school hooked on the digital content, I don’t think we’re going to go back.”

Diana Rendina’s library at Tampa Preparatory School in Tampa, Fla., a private school that serves about 700 middle and high school students, is now also a classroom and storage area for furniture that has been displaced due to social distancing.

Rendina is still connecting students to print books with a system she dubbed Uber Reads (the moniker a twist on the popular food delivery app UberEats). Students place book holds that she delivers via book cart during their lunch period. It gives her some face-time with students and to hear about titles they want to see in the catalog.

“There are some sixth graders who have never seen the library, but they know who I am,” Rendina says. “And that, I think, is really important. Even though they haven’t been to the library yet, they have an association with who the librarian is and that librarian is interested in what they care about.”

“Between that and our ebooks, our circulation numbers are close to what they were pre-COVID,” she adds. Her school offers ebooks through Sora, the K-12 app created by the OverDrive platform widely used by public libraries. “They’ve really liked the ebook platform, and they are taking advantage of the cart.”

‘They’re Going to Keep Reinventing’

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Luhtala says technology has changed some aspects of the school day for the better.

If students need help while they’re home in quarantine, they can send a text or jump into the virtual library—a Google Meeting that’s on all throughout school hours—and get help from the circulation desk, Luhtala says. And virtual classrooms have made co-teaching at her school more seamless than ever, combining in-person instruction with breakout rooms on Zoom.

“Next period, I’ll be virtual with my colleague who is physically going into the classroom, and she’s going to set me up in a breakout room with a couple of kids who she thinks will need a lot of support,” Luhtala says. “We can still do a library without a physical room, and that’s always been my claim. You don’t need a physical room to be a really effective librarian.”

While librarians are finding solutions for their book check-outs and technology services, their makerspaces are still on the shelf.

Rendina is a staple in the K-12 makerspace community. She shares a breadth of resources on her Renovated Learning website and has authored two books on the topic. She’d normally have a slew of activities ready for Maker Mondays and Techie Tuesday: virtual reality apps, 3-D printing, cardboard building challenges, recycled book art and taking apart old electronics.

They present a sanitization and social distancing headache for schools now. Still, she’s devising a way to bring back a modified version of her makerspace next semester.

“In addition to the fun of the activities, there’s also that social-emotional [component]. You’re interacting with other kids and you’re hanging out and working on projects together. I know there are some kids really missing that element,” she says. “Part of me wanted to start it up right away, but there are so many things we’re having to adjust to, I didn’t want to throw that out right at the beginning.”

Over in East Baton Rouge Parish, Gauthier says librarians will have to continually adapt as the school year progresses. Their summer was consumed with checking out Chromebooks to students for remote learning. Now librarians might find themselves pulled into a classroom as a substitute, while others are teaching elementary core classes.

“I’m not sure it’s going to settle down any time soon, so I think they’re going to keep reinventing what they’re doing in the position,” she says.

With the pandemic putting a hold on some plans for the new school year, Rendina is trying to show herself some grace. Students might not have the bandwidth to be in a book club or even read for fun, and that’s not necessarily a problem.

“I’m the type of person who can sometimes be a little self-critical and feel like I’m not doing as much as I should be,” she says. “I think that’s been a process for me since March—just recognizing that it’s OK that things aren’t exactly like they normally are. That doesn’t make me a bad librarian if we don’t have as many books checking out as we normally do. If we can just get the kids through this time period, do what we can, then I’m OK with that.”



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