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Keep telling stories

Mike Genet
Jessie Caliman from the Raytown branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library reads during a virtual storytime. Mid-Continent started offering virtual storytime in April after branches closed to the public for the pandemic.

Storytime at the Mid-Continent Public Library, one of the library’s most common programming staples, didn’t end in March when the pandemic forced branches to close.

Like many things, at least for the time being, storytime became virtual, and it has maintained at least a small audience through the summer. Mid-Continent also added a phone-based storytime option in May, and then an audio-only option online in July.

“We had conversations in trying to figure out the best way to do it,” said Scott Rader, MCPL’s director of youth services. “You just need permission from the publisher, and the publishers, much like a lot of businesses during the pandemic, made some special moves and opened up their permissions to librarians and booksellers, to be available to the people they serve.”

To note, virtual to in-person attendance isn’t a strong comparison, as the storytime sessions offered greatly varied from branch to branch, and virtual attendance is measured by devices tuned in and doesn’t account for how many people could be viewing a single device. Virtual storytime is posted on the library’s Facebook page for 10 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, as well as 6 p.m. Wednesdays.

When virtual storytime debuted in April, Mid-Continent averaged 59 devices tuning in. Since then, the monthly numbers have been 27, 23 and 17.

From July 2019 through February 2020, Mid-Continent branches averaged between 26 (July) and 18 (December) people at each storytime session.

Various early literacy associates around the library system, the people who normally host storytime, submitted videos, and Rader himself recorded some readings while he trained other library employees and gathered content.

“Reading the books and doing the songs, that part is similar – it’s not that much different,” Rader said. “But it’s a lot different doing it in a branch and for families and getting reactions, than when you’re doing it for the camera.

“It’s certainly strange doing it for an audience that’s a camera. Our jobs changed really quickly, and being able to do storytimes for their communities, even if it’s just a book or song to a camera, has been really helpful.”

In mid-May, the library started to offer Dial-A-Story, in which storytime offerings are available for a week at a time. Listeners can dial the number (816-701-6904) or click an online link on the library’s website for readings. After 42 calls through half of May, the library had 176 storytime calls in June and 81 through most of July, along with more than 300 unique online listeners in July.

“We started it a little later after some response from patrons,” Rader said of the audio-only option. “Our service model changed so quickly. I’ve learned to become a video editor and audio editor in this time.”

The library also has been posting music-based programs for virtual patrons.

Rader said he foresees such virtual programs staying with libraries to some extent when the pandemic ceases.

“A lot of publishers have extended their permissions,” he said. “It is something we want to continue doing, and this has given us a lot of time to consider how we might do (programming) in the future. It might look a little different in the future depending on what publishers allow.”