School libraries go quiet amid COVID-19

Through the online catalogue, interest surveys, and book talks, teacher librarians in the Iowa City schools are distributing books to students enrolled in the hybrid and fully virtual format.


Katie Goodale

Photo Illustration by Katie Goodale

Natalie Dunlap, News Reporter

Ordinarily, libraries are a common space for anyone to wander through and browse their collection of books. When schools initially created COVID-19 guidelines, however, the elements that made libraries a convenient resource now posed a health and safety risk.

Iowa City schools’ Student Services Director Kate Callahan said she co-chairs the Iowa City Community School District Health and Safety committee, which created protocols for how the schools would function to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“One of the CDC recommendations was to close common areas,” Callahan said. “And so, the library is one of those common areas. So, when we looked at that, we thought, ‘Well, we need the services of the library, so how do we still get services and resources to students?’”

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Iowa City District Library Coordinator Kristi Harper said each school varies in how it organizes checkouts and the way librarians distribute books depends on the age and a student’s learning format.

Because books are porous, Callahan said they cannot be easily disinfected, so all books in the Iowa City schools must be quarantined for 72 hours after students return them.

“You’re not going to see students coming into the library,” Callahan said. “Instead, you’re going to see students requesting books and those being provided to the teacher to be distributed to the students. You may have the librarians going into the classrooms to provide instruction to groups of students.”

Although the library is closed to students for browsing and physically handling the books, Harper said there are assigned seats at tables in the library for students in study hall periods.

Teacher Librarian at Van Allen Elementary Sarah Latcham said there were two material distributions for completely virtual students at the beginning of the year. In the first distribution, students received textbooks and Chromebooks, she said, and in the second one, librarians pulled books for online students to check out.

“If they had holds in the library catalog, if they had chosen books and put them on hold in the library catalog, then we checked those out,” Latcham said. “And if they didn’t, then I used interest surveys and my knowledge of the students and I selected books for them. And we check those out and so all the online kids got books in their materials packets.”

As students are finishing that first round of books, parents and students are emailing her requesting new ones, and Latcham said she is repeating that process. At Van Allen, online students and parents can request curbside pickup of books on demand, though some other schools require parents and students to schedule a pickup time, she said.

Hybrid students in third grade and above use the online catalog to request books, and librarians drop off the books in classrooms. Harper said students learning how to navigate the catalog has been a silver lining in this situation. Students have also gotten more comfortable reading e-books or listening to audio books, Harper said.

For K-12 students in hybrid courses, teacher librarians will bring in carts of books and give book talks, or lay books on the floor and have students point at the ones they want. Latcham said she has to discourage kids from touching the books. If they do, she said, the student has to check the book out or it goes into quarantine.

*Editor’s Note: the Iowa City libraries are still providing interlibrary loan services and have codified their procedures for quarantining the books and sending materials between schools.

Latcham said the librarians have mostly been able to meet student’s needs, but some students were disappointed that the district stopped its interlibrary loan exchanges.

The AIM card, which was launched in December 2019, has provided another avenue for students to access reading material. Kindergarten through second-grade students can use their student ID to access resources at the Iowa City, Coralville, and North Liberty libraries. Iowa City Public Library Children’s Services Coordinator Angela Pilkington said digital use has gone up since the pandemic started.

Between July and September, students have used the AIM card to check out 15 physical books and 2,517 pieces of digital content.

The library space itself isn’t used to checkout or return books. In a meeting with librarians across the district, Harper said teacher librarians at the secondary school told her the library was quiet, and not in a good way.

“They’re not being able to make those informal connections with the kids the way they used to,” Harper said. “I know when my daughter was at [Iowa City] West [High School], she’d go in and work on a puzzle sometimes and hang out there. We can’t have a hangout going on anymore.”

Latcham said libraries are still important to the community and to schools during the pandemic.

“I think that we need to do everything we can to still be able to provide services to students,” Latcham said. “And so, if that means that we have to kind of pivot in what we’re doing, then that’s what we need to do.”