Friday, May 22, 2020

Russell Library Provides Agile Services During Unprecedented Time

Submitted by Russell Library.
They don’t teach ‘Pandemics 101’ in library school.  When Russell Library Director Ramona Burkey
received her Master’s Degree in Library Science in the late 1990s, courses included Personnel Management, Cataloging, and Statistical Analysis.  “There was never any discussion of how to run a library in the midst of a global health crisis,” says Burkey.  Instead, she and thousands of librarians around Connecticut and the country have had to use their ingenuity, resourcefulness and compassion to navigate these times.

The Russell Library, despite being closed to the public since March 13, has stepped up by providing a rich array of virtual and digital resources.  Examples include online story hours, arts and crafts and activity sessions, book discussion groups, career counseling and resume reviews, financial seminars, and much more.  Library staff have been key to a city-wide, multi-week virtual Shakespeare production called “A Midsummer Night’s Stream”: Jennifer Billingsley, Russell’s Head of Youth and Family Learning, spearheaded this partnership between the Library, ARTFARM, and Oddfellows Playhouse Youth Theater.  The end result has been a gripping four-part series on the Zoom platform, featuring Middletown’s best young talent along with local music superstars such as Noah Baerman of Resonant Motion, State Troubadour and Middletown resident Nekita Waller, Anitra Brooks, and Bryan Titus.

The Russell Library’s website has been a crucial link between residents and resources during difficult times.  Updated daily, the site contains valuable information such as “How to Help,” “If You Need Help,” “Tips for Working at Home,” and Covid-19 fact sheets in English and Spanish.  Since residents need library cards to access the library’s downloadable e-books, audiobooks, magazines, music, and movies, the library quickly set up an online library card application portal.  “I’ve personally processed and mailed about 300 requests for new or renewed cards since March,” reports Burkey.  “It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to provide these services to our community members.”  Burkey also notes that the library quickly reallocated funding to ensure enough copies of high-demand digital materials to residents.  “It’s about being agile and responding swiftly and appropriately to our community’s needs.”

To that end, Russell Library staff recently participated in an online professional development session where they discussed Middletown residents’ current challenges and needs, how the library can and should respond, and what their next steps should be.  “It was amazing,” says Burkey.  “The staff came up with a fantastic set of initiatives to support our community, and we are pursuing those ideas now.  The main thrust of our conversation revolved around the fact that our community members are feeling scared, isolated, and uncertain.  So we asked ourselves how the library, which is normally a ‘convener,’ in a physical way through in-person programs and services can respond in new and creative ways while the library building is closed, and the staff really came through.”

Russell Library staff have been helping out wherever and whenever needed since the very beginning of the pandemic.  When they learned that Middletown Senior Center staff would be contacting nearly 1,000 members as part of its “Keep Connected” wellness calls, library staff jumped in to help, making thousands of connections with some of Middletown’s most vulnerable residents.  Library staff are also writing postcards to seniors and sewing and distributing cloth face masks.  In March, the library donated much of its stock of PPE to first responders, who at the time were in dire need of such supplies.  “We didn’t need it right away, but there were people who truly did,” says Burkey.

Looking forward, the library will follow guidelines from the City of Middletown as well as state and national officials with regard to resuming services.  “We have a phased reopening plan with different levels of staffing and services based on public health conditions, the availability of PPE and child care, and other factors,” says Burkey.  “Right now, we will be able to get some staff back into our building at the beginning of June, and we plan on starting curbside pickup of library books and materials shortly after that.  My primary concern is the health and safety of our staff and patrons, so we will be proceeding with our reopening plan in a deliberate and fact-based way.  We really miss our patrons and we can’t wait to see them again, though -- even from a distance and behind a mask.”

Updates on library services will go out through the library’s e-newsletter; users can sign up at  The Russell Library is also active on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter.

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