4 Community Engagement Ideas for Libraries During COVID-19

Libraries can engage their communities through high-quality online programming. The year 2020 has brought a few challenges for libraries, to say the least. Along with dealing with shutdowns and safe reopenings, libraries have been tasked with finding ways to keep their communities engaged.

Below are four community engagement ideas you can use to continue to prove just how relevant libraries are during these challenging times. 

1. Deliver High-Quality Online Programming

When libraries had to close their doors, librarians very quickly stepped up to create engaging virtual programming for their communities, including virtual storytimes, take-and-make teen crafts, book clubs, and more.

To fine-tune your virtual programming options, ask yourself some of the following questions:

  • What programs that you delivered in the past have been the most popular?
  • How could you adapt these popular programs for an online format?
  • Are there performers you’ve worked with or new performers who could deliver virtual programs through your library?
  • What are some of the new concerns your community members might have? Are they struggling with how to file for unemployment benefits or how to maximize WiFi speed in a home with multiple users?
  • How could you best support those concerns? Can you create a how-to video on filing unemployment claims in your state? How about a live online chat with your library’s IT support specialist?
  • What are the needs of other organizations in your community? (See #4 below for partnership ideas.)

Ideas for popular virtual programs include the following:

  • Preschool storytime
  • Storytime dance parties
  • Simple at-home STEM experiments
  • Early literacy and math scavenger hunts (i.e., find something in your house that’s square or something that starts with the letter B)
  • Paint night (or painting hour during the day for younger age groups)
  • Online community art gallery (try a theme once a month or feature certain age groups)
  • Virtual makerspace activities
  • Short story or poetry contests
  • Online trivia
  • DIY masks or ear savers
  • Performances from local musicians
  • Self-care tips
  • Tips on deciphering health information
  • Teen and adult book clubs

Virtual programming can be complemented with circulating early literacy and math games, readers’ advisory book bundles, or themed take-and-make kits. Get supply lists and directions for 5 Popular Take-and-Make Kits for Libraries and ideas for 10 themed kits.

2. Provide Homeschool Resources

Schools will be delivering instruction in many different formats this year. Because of the unknowns, many families are choosing to homeschool their children or to support them as they learn virtually from home. You may already have homeschool services set up at your library, and they will be needed more than ever.

If you’re just starting to think about how you can collaborate with your homeschooling community, consider surveying or meeting with some homeschool veterans and newbies to discuss how the library can best support them. Tap into the experienced homeschool parents in your area and host a panel discussion to provide other area parents with tips and tricks, or share the panel discussion from the Madison County Public Library in Mississippi.

Other ideas include the following:

  • Create a virtual homeschool support group that meets once a week to share ideas.
  • Provide access to state regulations and forms for homeschooling.
  • Curate book bundles of age-appropriate reading materials to complement the curriculum.
  • Showcase your collection of homeschool resources (virtually and in person if your building is open).
  • Provide instruction on how to access and use digital resources.
  • Extend due dates.
  • If you have the outdoor space, set up a socially distanced outdoor meetup.

If you have services in place, now is the time to spread the word about them. Use your promotional channels to let community members know about all your resources, and ask them to share with others. This could include things like scheduling Facebook Live demos of how to use digital resources available through the library. You can post the videos on your YouTube page, as well as place marketing flyers promoting your services in local grocery stores. 

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3. Up Your Curbside Services Game

Many public libraries have been offering curbside services to continue to get books in the hands of their grateful patrons. But curbside service isn’t just for books. There are libraries offering curbside printing and faxing services, lending laptops and mobile hotspots, and keeping their communities engaged through take-and-make kits.

Some libraries, like Madison Public Library in Wisconsin, are using their curbside pickup services to create readers’ advisory book bundles. Others are circulating DVDs by creating themed movie night packs that include DVDs and microwave popcorn. Still, others are creating early literacy or math kits with themed books and simple tips to help parents teach school readiness skills (download these free calendars for your own kits).

Other libraries are spreading kindness with kindness bookmarks and cards, inspiring artistic pursuits with how-to-draw bookmarks, and getting crafty with critter activity cards.

Whatever you’re doing, don’t miss the opportunity to cross-promote your other relevant services each time a patron picks something up at your library. Create flyers that detail your services (either make one all-encompassing flyer or create themes, such as early literacy, teen, or adult programming). Make sure each patron receives a relevant flyer when they stop in for their materials. For example, when a parent comes to pick up an early literacy take-home kit, be sure they receive a flyer detailing how to access your virtual early literacy storytimes. 

4. Partner with Community Organizations 

If you haven’t already created strong lines of communication with community partners, such as family services, colleges, and healthcare organizations, now’s the time to start. Start by asking them their greatest challenges and greatest needs right now. You may find that you already have resources that can help them and the community members they serve. And your conversation might also spark some new ideas and collaborative projects.

Some libraries have been able to support their communities by becoming COVID-19 testing sites, setting up food pantries in their unoccupied rooms, or setting up a used electronics drop-off event.

Your partner organizations can also help spread the word about library services such as unemployment resources, WiFi hotspots, and printing and faxing. They can also connect you with homebound community members and help you brainstorm ways you can serve them, such as creating a “dial a story” program and radio storytimes like the John McIntire Library in Zainesville, Ohio, did.

Think about other ways to partner as well. What expertise lies within these groups that you can tap into? Are there healthy eating or budgeting experts who could run a virtual program through the library? Could you start a tutoring program connecting education majors with virtual learners that qualifies them for college credits? Maybe a local museum would like to collaborate on a COVID-19 historical documentation project. You’ll build mutually beneficial relationships through seeking to understand your community partners’ challenges and learning more about what they have to offer.

These are just some of the ways libraries are focusing on community engagement during these challenging times. The work you do during and after COVID-19 will be some of the most stressful and demanding work you ever do. But it will also be some of the most rewarding. Keep listening to your community, keep adapting, and keep trying new things, and your library will thrive.


Liz Bowie

Liz Bowie

Marketing Content Manager at Demco, Inc.
Liz is the Marketing Content Manager for Demco. Her background includes editorial management and product development of innovative and time-saving tools for schools and libraries, with an emphasis on Common Core, literacy and math. The products she and her team have developed, including classroom games, learning centers and professional development resources, have garnered 46 industry awards for excellence in education. Liz is passionate about promoting literacy through her work and the work of others. If you are interested in sharing your ideas and programming tips on Demco’s Ideas and Inspiration blog or have ideas for topics you’d like to see covered, contact Liz at lizb@demco.com