Trust in the Time of COVID

I’m lucky. In the midst of a pandemic, when almost all of the local schools are remote, and with all of the programs that I run for my urban public library system online, I have developed extra-strong partnerships with classroom teachers and school librarians. Some ask me to recommend resources for students. Some invite me to visit classes over Zoom. All eagerly share information about my numerous Zoom book clubs, maker programs, and author visits. As a children’s librarian in a public library, I have always worked closely with my school-based counterparts. But now that everything has moved online, I find my school-based colleagues’ seal of approval more crucial than ever. 

Think about it: in the old days, families would wander into the library off the street. They would meet the librarians, see the environment, judge for themselves that the library was a safe space. They would pop in and out, get a feel for the library, eventually try a program and register for a library card. Library acclimation could happen slowly. 

In the online world, you’re either in or you’re out. Want to meet other library families? Great! Send me your email so I can give you the Zoom link. Wondering what kinds of materials we have? I can give you a list of resources, but you’ll need to register for a library card before you can open our eBooks or arrange pickup for print materials! To longtime library users, these seem like innocent enough requests. But for families who are new to libraryland, families who have been told to be careful about giving out information over the Internet and to protect their kids’ anonymity online at all costs, these requests can be major deterrents.

I recently visited a middle-school class via Zoom. I was there at the invitation of an enrichment teacher. Although I had worked with the teacher before, he now had a new group of students. He was still forging relationships with these kids, so I was an additional new face. I started the session by asking students if they had a library card. Almost none of them did. Their teacher put an eCard link in the Zoom chat, and we encouraged them to sign up (with caregivers’ permission, of course). The students hesitated. “I never put information in random links,” one girl said. Her classmates agreed. It was a great teaching opportunity—we chatted about how they evaluate what links to trust or to question and we celebrated the students’ inquiry. For me, though, it was also a major learning moment. In this online world, devoid of the physical library space, I was a stranger asking students I’d met just a moment before to subscribe to something they didn’t feel they understood. I needed their teacher to actively vouch for me, to back up the library that these students didn’t yet know or trust.  

When school librarians and classroom teachers share information about public library programs with their students’ families, they’re affirming the not-yet-familiar public librarians and the virtual public library spaces we now occupy. I’m so grateful for all of my wonderful school-based partners who tell new students and families to trust me and to trust the public library. Each time I see a new face in my Zoom room, I silently thank the educator who sent a new family my way.

Rebecca Fox is a children’s librarian at the Boston Public Library. When she’s not at the library, you can find her curled up with a book or a crossword, or crafting goofy bead animals. You can reach Rebecca at rfox@bpl.org.

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