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ITHACA, NY -- When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York in March of this year, the librarians within the Tompkins County Public Library (TCPL) strived to provide access to the entire community in a safe way for all concerned. Plans were developed, new computer programs were learned and a way was made out of no way. In this emailed interview, Youth Services Director Sarah O’Shea talks about the work that was undertaken and achieved in this challenging time. 

Ithaca Times: What first drew you to libraries and being an advocate for them? And talk about how you first became involved in Tompkins County Public Library Youth Services?

Sarah O’Shea: I’ve always been a reader and loved books and libraries. I was a fairly shy kid so books were, as for many shy kids, my escape. I became a library shelver (page) for a summer job in college and while I was in the stacks there, I realized how much good libraries do for their communities. That’s when I first started to realize libraries are so much more than books. They are community hubs where people find connections, information, friendships, reassurance, support, fun, and education. I knew it’s where I belonged.Once I had my Masters in Library Science from Syracuse University, I began looking for a job. I worked for a year at the Steele Memorial Library in Elmira and then an opening for a Youth Services librarian at TCPL became available. I’d always loved Ithaca, so I jumped at the chance to work here and have worked here ever since! Over 20 years!

IT: Youth Services this past year has been very active such as the Tompkins County Public Library Teen Center, and the Young Adult Book Club. Talk about the past year and what that has been like for you as the Director of Youth Services?

SO: 2020 has been a year of upended expectations, difficulties, and happy surprises, as it has for everyone. Our Teen Center had been an incredibly active place for our community’s teens to hang out, relax, have fun, find information, and connect with each other since it’s opening in 2017. It was a bustling place – in part because it really was one of the very few places in our community that actively welcomed teens and didn’t require them to buy anything. All of our programming – for teens and for younger kids - were having wonderful attendance and were incredibly appreciated by our community.  We offered 3 book clubs – STEAM, Tween, and Young Adult.  We had Makerspace programs for all ages, Robotics clubs, Musical storytimes, Baby, Toddler, Family, and Chinese storytimes, writing programs, and homeschooling fairs. The library building was bursting most days. These things were all going strong and our plans were growing until March 2020.

IT: It seems the pen pal program and the virtual programs are very active too. Can you say more about them? 

SO: Of course, once COVID hit, the brakes screeched on all of that and we had to quickly readjust our thinking about what it means to serve our community’s children, teens, and families and how we could do that safely.  Our first step was bulking up our ordering of e-books and e-audiobooks so that our families could access books during the early shut-down days when the library building was closed. That we began to do within days of shutting down. Circulation of all of those items rose dramatically in March, April, and beyond.

The Youth Services staff blew me away at their ability to quickly learn new technologies so we could, within the first few months of the shutdown, begin to offer Virtual Baby Storytime, Family Storytime, Chinese Storytime, and a Kindergartner program that we offer as part of the Kids Discover the Trail organization. We offered a literacy calendar that parents could use to find fun and educational activities to do at home with their littlest children. We eventually added all three of our monthly Book Clubs back into the schedule, all virtual. Despite all the negatives about doing virtual programming, we did discover some happy surprises. We found in our book clubs, some of our regular attendees who didn’t always feel comfortable speaking in a group setting, would share via Zoom messaging and it was a much more comfortable way for them to share their thoughts and ideas!  It’s those little things that surprise us and keep us going!  Virtual Robotics Club quickly was added to the schedule as well and our families have really been enjoying that as well. It includes virtual robot races and battles. The kids send in their code, our staff programs the robots, and then films the battles and races. It’s incredibly fun to watch!

As well as the programming side of things, we also wanted to help the families that we knew would regularly come in and check out heaps of books for their families, so we devised the Family Book Bundle, where staff curates a collection of 10 books for a particular age level on a particular topic that families share with us through a simple Google form.  Families can then come on our lobby or curbside days to pick up the bag of books.  Those have been incredibly popular and so appreciated!  

As the school year began, we added Learning Pod bundles as well – which are larger and for a wider age range to provide resources for homeschooling families and families opting out of traditional public schooling this year. We knew there were many families who were new to that and wanted to support them in a safe way. 

We were still missing our daily interactions with our “library regulars,” so we recently began our library pen pal program where kids can write letters to librarians and the librarians write back!  It’s so fun and fulfilling to read the letters from kids of all ages – how they miss the library, what they are reading, and asking for suggestions about what to read next.  One child even told us all about her broken arm!  It’s been a nice substitute to getting to talk with the kids in person regularly.  Of course, now that we have begun our Express Browsing, we are finally able to see some of our regulars face-to-face (from a distance) which has been heart-warming to return to.

 IT: Do you have plans for the coming new year at TCPL Youth Services? 

SO: It’s hard to plan these days with all the constant changes and uncertainty that COVID has brought into our lives. We do plan to continue with virtual programming to keep our patrons and our staff safe – our storytimes, our book clubs, our Robotics club. We will try to add more when we are able. We have been working on potentially offering a storytime via the radio to reach our community that might not have access to the internet in order to view our virtual storytimes. We have been keenly aware of the difficulties that some families face in this new “virtual world” when internet access is not always easy to come by and have been trying various ways to serve them as well. We know we will have budgetary and staffing limitations in this upcoming year, but we hope to offer as much as we can – programming-wise and resource-wise.

IT: Would you like to say anything more to our readers about Tompkins County Public Library and Youth Services? 

SO:  I am incredibly proud to work at Tompkins County Public Library and to lead this Youth Services department.  I consider myself so lucky to love my job and to see, on a regular basis, the good our work does.  We are helping children love reading and learning, we are helping families enjoy time together, bond, and connect, and we are helping teens feel welcome in a world that does not always feel that welcoming to them. Working with people in the public library setting is never dull and it’s incredibly satisfying. TCPL does our best to change, adapt, and grow to meet the needs of our community – no matter what those needs look like or what the world brings. We want to be a welcoming place for all and continually strive to be just that.

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