Beyond Books: Traverse Area District Library Offers Much More

Losing—then rediscovering—our local library during last spring’s state shutdown due to COVID-19 taught us how we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone. But with donor support, the Traverse Area District Library has plans to serve in even more ambitious, creative and essential ways.

In June, when the Traverse Area District Library reopened after months of closure, executive director Michelle Howard saw something interesting.

People were staggering out of the building with armloads of books. Bulging bags and teetering stacks.

“I think they were so afraid we were going to close again and were stocking up,” she says, “It’s like if they knew they’d have enough books, they’d be okay.”

It’s not that the Traverse area doesn’t have it’s share of library lovers. In fact, during the shutdown, the library had more than 40,000 items circulating—a huge number compared to other libraries its size. But rather, the community began to see the library in a different light—as an essential service, and something that profoundly enriches our quality of life.

With the onset of the pandemic, the staff pivoted to provide access, equity and support to a beleaguered community. They waived fines because people couldn’t return books. They started processing online library cards. “It’s been a constant shuffle, examining who we are as a library, and watching the staff rise to the challenge,” Howard says.

One of those challenges has been facing issues of equity—such as access to Wi-Fi for those who need it for online learning and job searching. The library sought grants for getting laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to support families and individuals who don’t have online access and need it, especially for remote learning and homeschool.

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The library also built a student success portal as a support system to whatever learning plan families are following. It includes links to resources on homeschooling, discipline, online learning tutorials (like how to use Google classroom), parenting, state testing standards, technology, events, activities and more.

On the interactive learning side, they’ve curated a robust Library of Things—STEM kits, puppets, an art projector, telescopes, a record player (old-school joy!) and a trove of musical instruments are all available to be checked out and incorporated into home learning, or just for fun. The steel-string travel acoustic guitar rarely sits on the shelf for long, Howard says, and ditto the dulcimer and banjo. Amps, acoustic guitars, a finger piano and some seriously nice pro-level synthesizer equipment round out the mix.

Library marketing and communications manager Heather Brady says the pandemic has shown where the library can grow—primarily in the area of outreach. With smaller communities still underserved for library materials, there’s an opportunity to dream big and raise funds for an old school solution—a bookmobile—with state-of-the-art implementation. A bookmobile could serve as a flexible learning center, with space for the library’s 3-D printer, STEM equipment and projects, as well as Wi-Fi hotspots to serve as a mobile oasis for those who need access.

At the end of the day, “It’s not just books,” Brady says. “The library is the very definition of the gift that keeps on giving.”

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