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Beyond books: Libraries cure pandemic boredom with virtual classes, crafts and story time

(Pete Reynolds/for The Washington Post)
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Banish any thought of the library as a place to pick up books, return them, repeat. Certainly, it’s good — great — for that, but libraries also are community hubs, those rare places where all are welcome, without cost, to learn, have fun and tap into valuable resources. Even a pandemic can’t change that.

“Like other libraries, we turned all our public programming — or as much of it as we could — into virtual programming,” says Diane Kresh, director of Arlington’s public libraries. “We really had to dig in and figure out, okay, how do we make this work? We were closed completely for a little bit, but then people started saying, ‘Oh, well, we can do pumpkin carvings virtually, and we can do craft bags, and so on.’ People really leaned into their inner creative core and innovation and came up with some really fun things.”

The Washington region is home to numerous library systems, which can pay off for locals: Thanks to reciprocal agreements, residents of various jurisdictions can get free library cards at many other local systems. So if, for example, you wanted to request an in-demand new book, you could join a D.C. wait list and an Arlington wait list, boosting your odds of getting a copy quickly.

“I have upward of eight different library cards,” says Nicholas Brown, who oversees communications and outreach at Prince George’s County Memorial Library System. “So I can access eight times the eBooks. It’s a unique perk to the three jurisdictions — folks have access to numerous public libraries without even realizing it.”

Here’s a look at the virtual programming, and underutilized resources, at five of the region’s library systems.

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Arlington Public Library

Live from Kresh’s living room, it’s the umpteenth day of quarantine.

Spend it watching her talk-show-style interviews: with the first Black, female fire chief in the region. With the owner of Freddie’s Beach Bar, a gay bar in Crystal City. With Arlington’s poet laureate.

“I interview local people who either grew up here, live here, work here or have something to do with Arlington,” Kresh says of the series, dubbed “Live From Diane’s Living Room.” The videos are designed to be timeless and are archived on the library’s YouTube page. “You can look at them any time and learn something about Arlington and this community that we all know and love.”

The program is just one way the library has remained plugged into its community. During the early days of the pandemic, the staff launched Quaranzine, a weekly collection of DIY works from local residents — think recipes, comics and essays. And the library’s Center for Local History issued an ongoing call for community donations to help document the pandemic; residents are asked to submit artifacts such as diaries; school lesson plans that reflect the shift to virtual learning; revised, takeout-centric restaurant menus; and notes from community meetings.

Arlington Reads — a series of conversations with authors — was wildly successful in its virtual form, library staff said. This year’s theme is “Food for Thought,” and upcoming speakers include Jenny Offill (Feb. 18), Rebecca Traister (March 18) and Laila Lalami (April 22). The talks are streamed on Facebook Live and YouTube and are free to attend.

There are plenty of hands-on activities ahead, as well. In late December, the library hosted a “cookie bookie contest,” inviting bookish bakers to make edible treats inspired by a favorite author or character. Expect similar fun this year: On the third Thursday of every month, there’s a virtual craft-making session called CrafTEA; library patrons can also pick up free take-and-make craft kits. Additional programming centers on bullet journals, self-care and healthy aging.

Those craving a reading partner can join a wide selection of book clubs: for escapism, nonfiction and LGBTQ titles; and for readers over 55, for example, or adults who prefer YA reads.

“My role was to say, just go do it. Figure it out. Have fun,” Kresh says. “The important thing is to keep people engaged and interested in what’s going on with the library. And most of all, to read — read and figure out what’s going on in the world.”

D.C. Public Library

Richard Reyes-Gavilan, DCPL’s executive director, loves flipping through Cook’s Illustrated — but his subscription to the step-by-step cooking magazine lapsed. So now he uses RBdigital, a free app that allows users to download digital copies of more than 3,000 popular magazines. “You can click through just like you would flip through a physical magazine,” he says. “It’s great, especially if you bring it up on an iPad.”

The tool is among Reyes-Gavilan’s favorite library resources, one he hopes more people will take advantage of this year. Another: “We’ve got the free answer to Netflix,” he says. He’s talking about Kanopy, a video streaming platform that grants access to more than 30,000 classic and contemporary films. Adults with a DCPL card can watch six videos a month, plus two Great Courses series, which offer instruction on such skills as playing the piano or mastering dog training. Kids are granted unlimited access to Kanopy’s children’s titles.

“It’s a hybrid of entertainment and real learning,” Reyes-Gavilan says. “The Kanopy catalogue is out of this world. It’s not only feature films, but films that are more obscure, like foreign language academy award winners. And there are tons and tons of phenomenal documentaries.”

DCPL offers plenty of additional free tools, such as Universal Class — which allows users to take online courses at their own pace — and Brainfuse HelpNow, a live tutoring platform.

Online resources aside, Reyes-Galivan would sing about this year’s winter reading challenge from the rooftop of the newly renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library if he could. It’s a partnership with the Washington Wizards, Prince George’s County Memorial Library System and Alexandria Library that runs through March 31. Kids ages 5 to 19 can earn rewards for reading books, staying active, attending virtual events and more. Prizes include virtual rendezvous with the Wizards and fun bobblehead dolls. “Reading is at the heart of it, but it’s not only a reading program. It’s an engagement program,” Reyes-Gavilan says.

He’s also proud of the library’s story-time lineup, which has helped keep kids occupied during the day since the pandemic arrived, disrupting parents’ normal routines. Weekly options include baby and toddler story time; family story time; and an evening pajama edition.

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Fairfax County Public Library

Clear your schedule before checking out the Fairfax library system’s YouTube page, because it’s easy to tumble down the rabbit hole: There are cooking classes, with instruction on such dishes as floating tomato curry and coconut rice. Fun, crafty activities for young kids and teens, such as how to tie-dye at home and how to make soda can lanterns. And — naturally, since this is a library — author talks that span a variety of genres.

“A lot of what you’re seeing when you look at those videos, which are led by our staff, were in-person events that we thought would work well in this new format,” says Renee Edwards, the library’s program and educational services director. “We just want our community to know that we have not stopped programming, and that we’re still thinking about them.”

In addition to on-demand videos, community members can register for real-time virtual programs, like yoga and meditation classes, a crochet circle, a film club, book clubs and language learning.

Edwards is particularly excited about expanding the library’s grab-and-go offerings for adults. As of January, participants can borrow a kit packed with all the materials needed to learn a new skill, just as they would check out a book. Then they can use it to follow an instructional video or live stream on topics such as jewelry making, terrarium building and heat embossing.

“We just did it with a wreath-making program,” Edwards said in late December. “Customers checked out all the tools they would need to make a wreath, and then participated in a live event where someone walked them through how to use the materials in their kit. It was really fun.”

A new “eBook of the Month” program makes two digital titles per month available for immediate download — no holds or waiting required. Up next: “The Bone Witch” by Rin Chupeco and “Lincoln’s Gift: How Humor Shaped Lincoln’s Life and Legacy” by Gordon Leidner.

A story time series called “One Community, Many Stories” debuted in December: Each month, someone from a local, marginalized community will go live to read a children’s book that reflects their experiences, like being deaf or growing up Muslim.

“We need little connections with our community, now more than ever,” Edwards says. “And I think our live events do that. We’re still engaged, we still get to see each other. We still get to meet and talk about the things we like and enjoy, even though we’re not in-person.”

Montgomery County Public Libraries

At 5 p.m. on Friday nights, Montgomery County librarians shake the week away — virtually, of course — at a family dance party. “Everybody gets in front of the camera on Zoom and dances around to all sorts of fun music,” says Anita Vassallo, the library’s director. “It’s just being silly and having a good time.”

The dance party is one of many recurring events that make Montgomery County Public Libraries much like an all-purpose entertainment center that happens to specialize in books. During January, the lineup included yoga, tai chi, exercise classes for seniors, knitting and crochet programs, a cosplay makeup demonstration, family board-game night and Dungeons & Dragons adventures. Plus, of course, author talks and book clubs, as well as conversation meetups to practice English, French, Spanish or Chinese.

“We’re trying to do programming that helps combat social isolation,” Vassallo says. “Because we know that’s an issue for people now — particularly seniors, who don’t go out much, and then family programs.”

Since its first virtual event on March 23, the library has offered around 200 online programs a month. Some events fill up quickly, including a program in which elementary students read to therapy dogs.

Others don’t even require a library card. “The reach that we have now, in terms of our programs, is so extensive,” Vassallo says. “If you live here in the Washington area, but you have a friend or sister or brother or mom who’s wherever — Chicago, Tampa — they can participate with you.”

Of course, it’s not all fun and games. Library patrons have access to a large collection of online resources, including the learning platforms and Udemy; Rosetta Stone, which teaches more than 30 languages; and HeritageQuest Online for genealogy research. Frequent workforce development programs help build new skills, polish resumes and prep for career exams.

As of December, the library also has 250 MiFi mobile hotspots available for check out. “So if you’re challenged financially, or in other ways, and you don’t have wireless capability in your home, you can borrow one and have it for two weeks,” Vassallo says. “What we want more than anything is for people to be aware of and participate in and take advantage of all this amazing free stuff.”

Prince George's County Memorial Library System

In July, Prince George’s library system hosted a live discussion with Ibram X. Kendi on his book “How to Be an Antiracist.” The event went viral — especially for a library program, staff members joke, which isn’t exactly expected to be the event of the summer. Around 226,000 people tuned in worldwide, from nearly every continent.

“We realize there are barriers to people being at the library physically,” even during non-pandemic times, says Rachel Zukowski, program services manager. “So I really hope to break out of our four-walls mentality to the library being everywhere. There are just so many endless opportunities, even in a virtual setting, that people should avail themselves of.”

The library’s virtual offerings cater to all age groups: For kids, there’s story time every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10 a.m. That includes read alouds in Spanish, ASL and other languages, such as French and Mandarin. A frequent favorite is a partnership with the Old Greenbelt Theatre: It’s called “Storytime on Screen” and is held the second and fourth Mondays of each month. It’s a fun hybrid of stories, crafts and finger plays.

Teens can tap into various clubs, including for the LGBTQ community and those interested in volunteering. There’s also a Discord server — an online chat platform — that teens can join. It’s monitored by library staff but still offers a place to gather and talk candidly.

Since the onset of the pandemic, library staff have produced more than 30 virtual programs a week, many of which are archived on its YouTube page. “It’s like we’re running a TV channel now,” Zukowski said with a laugh. That includes a monthly series called “The Elephant We Don’t See,” which centers on frank discussions about diversity using books as conversation starters. The library is also focusing on health and wellness initiatives, including meditation, yoga and healthy living sessions, and hosts weekly craft programs.