Above: Atlanta Harpist Angelica Hairston’s Facebook video concert is available through the DeKalb library service. SPECIAL

You might never need to know how to tie a bow tie, but there’s something soothing during a global pandemic about watching a little Facebook video of Decatur librarian David Russell teaching the technique (shown below).

Posted a few weeks before COVID-19 shut libraries down, it was Russell’s first foray into producing video for the masses.

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What the reference librarian didn’t know then was that video production was about to become a big part of his life.

For years, library systems have been offering their members digital products such as ebooks, audiobooks, movies and music on services such as Libby and Hoopla. But as the coronavirus quarantine took hold this year, metro area librarians immersed themselves in new ways to connect with their communities through homegrown, online programming.

Zooming through technical learning curves, librarians have become video producers. They’re doing everything from live-streaming book club meetings and mindfulness meditation sessions to posting story times for kids and adults. They offer virtual gardening, cooking and yoga classes and hosting online game and trivia nights.

And it’s all free. No library card required.

‘We’re on their feed’

Until quarantine, social media was primarily used by DeKalb County libraries to inform people about programs they could attend at library branches, said Myguail Chappel, manager of DeKalb County Public Library’s Take-Out Services.

“We were using it as a way to get people into our doors,” Chappel said.

Now, the library is using social media to reach online audiences of unlimited proportions. Meanwhile, social media is helping the library raise its profile as people add library sites to the mix of Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages they follow, Chappel said.

DeKalb Library“Where before the library may have been an afterthought … now, I think every day that they use their social media we’re on their feed. So they’re always thinking about us as a resource,” said Chappel, who produced a video on allergy relief for the library. “Hopefully, through following us, we will offer them something that will help them in their life some type of way or give them some type of respite from their current worries.”

Libraries typically offer instruction on navigating the digital resources they employ. That’s a good thing in a time when people of all ages have been forced into the virtual life.

Story times that routinely drew 30 to 40 people to the Decatur Library are drawing hundreds of views online.

Elisabeth Harris, youth services librarian at the Tucker Library, has enjoyed the challenge of learning how to upload, download and edit her videos into “something publishable.”

A speaker of four languages, she performs the song “Bingo” in French, with the help of her dog, Cooper, in a Facebook video shot at her home.

She was thrilled when a parent sent her a video of their daughter singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Italian — something she’d learned from watching Harris.

“I’m getting emotional,” Harris said, recalling her story time regulars. “I really miss them an awful lot.”

‘Calm in a time of chaos’

In addition to staff-produced content, the DeKalb library system offers programming by contract performers such as Atlanta harpist Angelica Hairston, whose Facebook video concert has drawn more than 5,000 views.

DeKalb library harpThe highly lauded artistic director of the nonprofit Urban Youth Harp Ensemble performed the live, hour-long program on May 18.

“For me, it was a time for thinking, ‘What are the songs that make me feel calm in a time of chaos?’” Hairston said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic.

The first song she performed was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Russell’s tie video was an offshoot of the “tiebrary” he started at the Decatur Library. Known for the bow ties he wears to work, Russell lends ties from his large personal collection to library patrons who need ties for job interviews, court dates at the county courthouse a block away or for other important events.

“So many people don’t know how to tie a bow tie and they think it’s a super hard process,” he said. By the end of May, his video had snagged 871 views.

“I think the thing about librarians is we find ways to help on a shoestring budget … in quiet ways, where people can still have their dignity,” Russell said. “That’s what we do, day in and day out.”

He sees no end to virtual programming for libraries, even as some metro systems begin to resume various levels of reopening to the public.

The Decatur facility is fortunate to have a 200-seat auditorium where he has personally hosted events such as a music recital for children on the autism spectrum and improv for teens with learning disabilities, Russell said. Those programs can now be done virtually so that many more can attend programs that can be archived and watched at any time, he said.

Ready to serve

Ms ElizabethBut he and other librarians acknowledge downsides to the shift to virtual programming. Beyond not being able to interact in person with patrons, they’re concerned about people who can’t connect with the library virtually because they have no access to Wi-Fi or computers.

Chappel said people can access free Wi-Fi in DeKalb library parking lots and said some people are using call-in numbers for online programs. The library’s Senior Advisory Board, which he works with, continues to meet on Zoom to help the library plan programs for seniors. The next meeting is July 22 at 1 p.m. and is open to any senior.

DeKalb Ms Elizabeth“When it’s safe [to open], we are eager to offer DeKalb residents services that they’re in dire need of, whether it be access to a computer or resources on how to write a resume or having outside social organizations come in and talk about housing,” Chappel said. “We’re ready to make that happen.”

More online programs

Other library systems around the metro area also offer online programs. Here are some offerings:

Clayton County Library System — In addition to story times and craft programs such as “Slow Cooker Play Dough,” the library system offers live “Friday ‘Fun-day’ Trivia Nights” on YouTube hosted by its assistant director of Technology and Training, Marquita Gooch-Voyd.

“We are also going to implement 60-second book reviews during the Summer Reading months and host a series called ‘From Book to Big Screen’ via Netflix Party where viewers can watch the movie and chat about it all from the comfort of their homes,” Gooch-Voyd said.

Cobb County Public Library — See the library’s website for links to book club meetings, summer writing camps and other events such as Kemp Memorial Library’s Homeless Pet Club.

Teryn Gilliam
Teryn Gilliam

Fulton County Library System — “Everybody just stepped up to the plate and found their own niche,” said Teryn Gilliam, a branch group administrator, about Fulton’s librarians’ foray into virtual programming. “We’re all excited.”

Fulton’s offerings include book clubs, a cooking segment called “Adult Eats and Treats,” Fitness Tuesdays, and a story time for adults called “Book Break.”

The library also provides access to the WordPlay Shakespeare eBook series, which offers filmed performances of Shakespeare’s plays placed next to the original text of the plays.

Gwinnett County Public Library — “Most of our programming is happening on Facebook and Instagram right now and we’ve used pre-recorded programs/content as a foundation as we’re figuring out how to create more of a sense of community in digital spaces,” said Don Giacomini, a Youth Services specialist.

Youth Services has produced more than 100 programs on Facebook and Instagram from story times to “Backyard Biology.” There’s a virtual Sewing Club for teens, and adults are meeting with book clubs on Google Hangouts, taking classes such as “Baking with Becca,” and participating in the library’s virtual Author & Speaker Series. Find the series at gwinnettpl.org/adults/gcpl-virtual-author-speaker-series.

Video production has become a 40-hour-a-week job for librarians such as himself and once libraries return to full service, fewer virtual programs may be able to be offered, Giacomini said.

But community response has been good, he said, adding, “I think because of that we’re going to almost certainly continue what we’re doing now indefinitely.”

Get connected!

Here are links to the websites and Facebook pages for five metro Atlanta library systems. Find links to their other social media sites on these pages.

Clayton County Library Systemclaytonpl.org, facebook.com/claytongalib.

Cobb County Public Librarycobbcat.org, facebook.com/cobbcountylibrary.

DeKalb County Public Librarydekalblibrary.org, facebook.com/dekalblibrary.

Fulton County Library Systemfulcolibrary.org, facebook.com/fulcolibrary.

Gwinnett County Public Librarygwinnettpl.org, facebook.com/GwinnettLibrary/videos.

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Donna Williams Lewis a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She previously worked as an editor and journalist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.