Pandemic Practices: Virtual Library Strategy

This post features input from Nick Potter at the Pueblo City-County Library District

These days most of us are spending a lot more time at home, doing things that we’ve traditionally done in schools, offices, libraries, movie theaters, and music venues. While libraries offer a whole host of digital content and services, they’re often integrated with and share prominence with physical collections and promotional priority with in-person programming. Now that libraries are limited in their ability to offer services that are not virtual, digital collections, learning at home resources, and virtual programs are moving front and center. We talked with Nick Potter, Director of Community Relations and Development at Pueblo City-County Library District (PCCLD) about  the creation of The Library @ Home, a hub for virtual library services, as well as the strategy that guided staff and lessons learned.

Virtual Library Strategy

On March 12, 2020 the PCCLD began cancelling library events and then a day later announced its closure to the public beginning March 13. The hours between cancelling large events provided a foreshadowing that afforded PCCLD time to make plans for a long-term closure. During these hours, we developed what we called a “hub” for library services at home. This central location became known as “The Library @ Home,” and served as a blueprint for our Virtual Library Strategy.

The Library @ Home webpage needed to be simple but offer many library services and resources. We needed to offer existing library resources but package (or categorize) services and offerings to match the needs of our community. Ultimately, we decided on six categories to organize our virtual library: Movies and Music, eBooks and eAudiobooks, At-Home Learning Resources, What Should I Read Next? Book and Media Recommendations, Librarian Online, and Virtual Programming. This organization of library offerings helped to organize our messaging, not only to the public but to our staff. The process implemented early-on established a framework in which library staff can contribute during the extended stay-at-home orders.

Librarian Entrepreneurship

Once this initial framework was established, we developed the term “Librarian Entrepreneurship.” We decided to define this term as encouraging staff to develop creative solutions during this time when library services have been majorly disrupted. We pivoted our normal process from a centralized model of communications to a crowdsourced, centralized model. Each staff member was asked to contribute in some way; some created a YouTube channel, others developed book lists, book reviews, and provided resources for the community to use during this time. This change in infrastructure and process allowed us to be nimble during this time and keep our creative and helpful staff active and serving the community. We have relied on low-tech resources—including cell phone/tablet videos, Google Docs and Hangouts, and YouTube—to relay our virtual programs. In its third week of implementation, this process developed nearly 30 original virtual programs and continues to grow.

Promotion

Promotion of The Library @ Home also pivoted from our normal advertising and communication model. Our first step was to create a centralized hub for the community to use while at home. The second step was to make The Library @ Home second nature to the community when requesting information or resources. Making this page a habit meant that we needed to show its value and importance to users so it became a main feature on our main webpage. In addition to premium website exposure, every social media post included a link to The Library @ Home. We created social media posts as a hook for viewers to see the fun, interesting content we were creating to help with the extended stay-at-home. Once individuals were interested in what we wanted them to check out, we made sure that program/service “lived” inside of The Library @ Home page along with a myriad of other programs/services.

We relied heavily on the direct connection between social media and our website. Easy, seamless paths from social media posts to specific pages were important. Also, adding other interesting programs or resources as a hook on those pages helped to get people to stay within our website even after they consumed the information originally requested.

Reflections & Lessons Learned

In doing this exercise and changing our processes in the unprecedented time of coronavirus, I have learned that communicators and marketers need to embrace change and entrust our public service colleagues. In terms of best practices, I have had to acknowledge my personal tendency to control every aspect of a message and realize that by letting go a bit, a better conversation may happen. While my role as a public information officer requires messages to be polished and perfect, not all forms of communication should be held to the same level of scrutiny. Embracing other voices and working not as a gatekeeper but as a filter to organize a wide-ranging community voice can create a more colorful conversation.

While my role as a public information officer requires messages to be polished and perfect, not all forms of communication should be held to the same level of scrutiny. Embracing other voices and working not as a gatekeeper but as a filter to organize a wide-ranging community voice can create a more colorful conversation.

Throughout the nation, library staff provide hundreds to thousands of programs each day without the assistance or opinions of communicators/marketers. A level of trust needs to be given to these individuals to provide virtual programs just as they would in their respective library locations. Allowing for academic freedom and creative expression is giving rise to (what I think will be) local YouTube stars. This allows our library staff who are normally on the frontline with a smiling face to become the personality that a family or individual sees when viewing a YouTube video. The hope is to create some semblance of a library from a virtual environment.

While the last few weeks have been a time of unrest, it has allowed us all to be innovative and embrace technology so we can continue to provide a human experience to our community. I keep thinking to myself about the resources and technology that we have now versus the last time the world saw a pandemic. While no technology can currently replace a smiling person willing to help someone or the physical sense of community that a brick and mortar building provides, we can take respite in the fact that we have technology that was not available to past generations to ease this disruption to our way of life. We live in 2020 and not 1918 so let’s embrace that and become leaders in technology and communication during this tumultuous time.

The more that a library can create a sense of community by using technology, the more we will be seen as leaders during this time. At PCCLD, through innovation, we have created a forum for book, movie, and music recommendations for adults and youth. We created programming for history buffs, physical and mental fitness, online teen hangouts, legal clinics, and the much missed storytimes. We created a virtual space that in some ways built a new branch of the library district and created a space that will be useful during the age of coronavirus but will be something that can exist and grow even after we are able to assemble at and enjoy the physical locations of our local libraries.

How is your library re-organizing, re-branding, and promoting your digital content and virtual programs? How are you managing these changes? What’s working? What’s not working? If you have information that you would like to share with the Colorado library community, please reach out to me, Marisa Wood, at mwood@coloradovirtuallibrary.org, or by phone at 303.351.2338.