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How Librarians Are Keeping Kids Learning During The Pandemic

Oakland Public Library is open for curbside pickup, but its doors remain shut. So what happens to families and kids who depend on libraries for more than books? In this installment of The Essentials, meet a children’s librarian who is working to preserve what makes the library so special.

Click the play button above to listen to this story.

"I think I found Oakland public library to be my refuge ... so I want to be able to provide those opportunities to kids as well."

When I talk with Laura Liang over video chat, she’s more than game to jump into one of the children’s songs in her repertoire.

“There's different hello songs,” she tells me. “One that I've always liked to do was just a lot of waving, so it goes: 'Hi my friends and how are you? How are you? How are you? Hi my friends and how are you? How are you today?'"

Laura is the Supervising Librarian for Children's Services at Oakland Public Library. One of her favorite parts about being a librarian is interacting with young kids during the library’s popular Storytime events.

“There's one that's a lot of fun with bubbles too, but I don’t have bubbles. Generally I have a bubble gun. And then I sort of walk around the room and I spray bubbles at everybody and the kids just go insane. In another world we will do this again.”

In another world, before shelter in place, Storytimes happened in person. Kids and their families would sit in a circle around the librarian, who led them in songs, rhymes, hand movements, and of course, stories. All of these help develop literacy skills.

In this world, library buildings have been shuttered, and many librarians have been reassigned as disaster service workers.

“So a lot of our library staff have actually been currently working at meal distribution sites and produce distribution sites,” Laura explains. “When our doors closed, the work needed to be done elsewhere.”

There’s still work to be done at the library, though. Laura and the rest of the essential staff who have stayed on are trying to keep some of the library’s core services going.

I think kids are really confused. You know, they don't really understand what a pandemic is, or why you have to wear a mask outside.

One of a librarian’s key jobs is to answer questions. That’s still the case, but the questions have become more urgent.

“I think kids are really confused. You know, they don't really understand what a pandemic is, or why you have to wear a mask outside.”

She says the protests of the last several months have only added to the confusion. 

“What’s going on out there? What is Black Lives Matter, or what [are] the Stonewall riots? And so we create programming that sort of explains in a gentle way, but also in an informational way, what these protests were about and what they are about, and why it's important.”

To help answer these questions, Laura and her team make book recommendations and often bring in experts. In June they had a drag queen guest host a story time to talk about LGBTQ Pride

They also make videos that teach kids about basic habits that keep us healthy. One of the first videos Oakland Public Library posted to their youtube page once shelter in place began was of a librarian singing to the camera to teach children the correct way to wash their hands. The song turns all the washing motions into fun hand movements about rocket ships and petting a dog. Since then, over a hundred new videos have been posted, with more going up each week.

The confusion and questions aren’t limited to kids, either. Laura says parents are a little lost, too.

“You know, there are a lot of resources out there and sometimes they just want to find one landing page with maybe a list of books that are OK to read to a child to help them understand … to say, hey, I know this is a confusing time for you, it's probably a confusing time for a lot of people. Here's something that you can read about to help you understand why it's important.”

It’s really important to Laura that the library feel like a safe place to learn and explore. Her passion for this work goes back to her childhood, which was so intertwined with the Oakland Public Library that it’s almost like she was destined for this job.

“I grew up in the Oakland Public Libraries,” she says. “It's really where my heart is. Especially growing up in an immigrant family where my parents didn't know English, right? So that's the language I primarily spoke outside the home. And so when I come to the library, I'm able to not just connect with other Asian kids who are speaking my home language, but connect with other people who speak English — and who can just sort of help me understand this world that I'm growing up in. Where, yes, my home life is Chinese, but externally, my life is also in English.”

For Laura, having bilingual storytime helped her grow and engage with the world.

“I think I found Oakland public library to be my refuge … so I want to be able to provide those opportunities to kids as well.”

Oakland Public Library was also her first job. And, when questioning what to do with her career, it was a librarian who helped her figure out the path.

“Some of the librarians who work at OPL basically watched me grow up and I'm working with them now. I remember working with a teen librarian here when I was in high school who always just seemed really understanding of all the struggles that you would have as a teenager.

“I think that really helped me sort of gain this respect for a librarian and what they had to do. Because it's not just providing reading recommendations, there's all this social interaction. You build a huge relationship with the teens and the kids that you work with.”

Laura recently returned to Oakland after spending 10 years as a librarian in New York and San Mateo. But, it was a far cry from the kind of homecoming she expected.

“I started this role as a supervising Librarian of Children's Services at Oakland Public Library probably seven days before shelter in place started. I got a really brief intro, and then it was like disaster planning and … what's our next steps? Do we close the library?”

They%u2019re like improv artists, figuring things out on the fly.

That’s exactly what happened in March, when all of the physical branches were shuttered. Since then, Laura and her team have been racing to adapt the resources they know the community depends on to a socially-distanced world. Video storytimes are just one piece. They’ve also been giving out Internet hotspots to families in need of access. And the Summer Reading Program, which is typically planned out nearly a year in advance, had to be retooled in just weeks.

“We've really had to take a step back and brainstorm and think of different ways that we can reach our community.”

They’re like improv artists, figuring things out on the fly. One recent idea is called “Art Classes In A Bag.” It’s replacing a series of art classes the library was supposed to host in person.

“Each bag contains art supplies that will allow children and families to create several art projects,” Laura explains. “Anything that they want.”

Laura is proud of the way they’ve transitioned so many services online, but she acknowledges that addressing the needs of families without Internet access is a big challenge.

“We are working on distributing free books,” she says. “And we're sort of contacting our community partners and anyone who might be engaging with families in person in some type of way. If we can get a book into a child's hands so that they have a chance to read and to explore … I think we've done our jobs.”

In the past, the most gratifying part of Laura’s job was seeing a kid’s reaction to real learning.

“They have this light bulb that goes off. That's like, ‘Oh my goodness, I can't believe this is happening!’ Maybe it’s a magic show, maybe it’s doing an art project.”

These moments don’t really happen anymore, at least not in the same way. But, sometimes something comes close. She says it’s like a little boost of fuel, like when she met one kid picking up books for the summer reading program.

“They're like, ‘We read every week!’ And I'm like, ‘That's amazing! Did you turn in your summer reading log?’ And they’re like, ‘We did, we did! We dropped them off in the book drop can we get our free book?’ 

“And it's like this reminder that kids still remember that we are still here and it's just so comforting to know that they're so excited to read throughout the summer and to come pick up a book. And so I think that was a moment where I was like, yes, this is why I do what I do.”

Now that school has started, Laura has shifted her focus to supporting teachers who have the monumental task of adapting an entire semester to a distance learning model.

“I feel like in a normal year, we are a well oiled machine,” she says with a laugh.

In the past the librarians would do a lot of library tours and class visits. This year they’re doing everything they can to just get books into kids’ hands … or their phones.

"We hope that our storytime videos are welcoming, we hope that they can find a space to just take a moment for themselves ... to create something for themselves."

This includes virtual class visits on Zoom, free online tutoring, running after school book clubs, arts and crafts programs, and even STEM programming (science, technology, education, and math). 

You can even book a librarian to get personalized reading recommendations. Laura says they’re trying as much as possible to recreate the atmosphere of the library.

“We hope that our storytime videos are welcoming, we hope that they can find a space to just take a moment for themselves ... to create something for themselves.”

But, despite all these efforts, that idea of the library as a refuge — which is so important to Laura — just can’t fully be replicated online. Sometimes, the building itself is important.

“I really feel for the kids who now have nowhere to go,” she says with a sigh. “It's hard, because not only is the library closed, but everywhere is closed. And so for kids who have really relied on the library as a safe space or just relied on the library as a place to go with their friends … that's why we continue to keep our eyes and ears open for opportunities to reach out to our children and our families and our teens, letting them know that we're still here. Anything that we can do we will, and that we look forward to the day that we can reopen our buildings and welcome them back in.”

Visit the Oakland Public Library's website for current hours and availability.

Crosscurrents @WORKOakland
Chris is a graduate of KALW’s Audio Academy class of 2020. He is currently an Editor-Producer for KQED Podcasts and a freelance reporter. His reporting focuses on disability, mental health, and healthcare inequities, and has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Public Media Journalists Association, and the San Francisco Press Club.