Julie Roach has been the manager of youth services at the Cambridge Public Library in Massachusetts since 2005. She also reviews children’s books for the Horn Book and teaches children’s literature at Simmons University’s Graduate School of Library and Information Science. The Cambridge Public Library closed to the public on March 13, and Roach and her youth services team worked from home until June, when the library began its first phase of reopening with outdoor contactless pickup service. She spoke with PW about what it’s been like to be a librarian during this difficult time.
Prior to the shutdown, a big part of your job was interacting in person with children and families in the library. How much do you miss that? How do you keep your spirits up and motivate your team?
Connecting kids with books and empowering them as readers through those daily interactions brings great meaning and satisfaction to our job, and I miss it every day. We keep our spirits up by acknowledging what we can do right now and looking for new ways to do it. Of course, some days are challenging, frustrating, and exhausting, but we celebrate our victories and try to keep our sense of humor about us. I have an incredibly dedicated and spirited youth services team, and I feel so fortunate that we can face the obstacles together. This strong team makes all the difference.
Without the face-to-face component, how do you keep your patrons engaged with the library and with reading? Can you describe a few innovative programs for families that you’ve started during the pandemic that are unique to the Cambridge PL or that you’re particularly proud of?
We have held a few outdoor children’s book giveaway events. Our youth services staff excel at readers’ advisory, and we offer this online and over the telephone now. However, I am most proud of a staff-led initiative called Kids Books to Go. At branch library pop-up events held outdoors, children and teens can borrow a bag of books chosen by a youth librarian. To keep the event stress-free and safe, we avoid the hurdle of library cards and loan these books on an honor system. We ask kids and families simply to return them when they finish.
Like many libraries, we have moved all our programming online. We typically use Zoom so that we can interact directly with participants and replicate some of the experience of an in-person program. We hold storytimes this way, but also movement and music events, book discussions, and author and illustrator events.
Back in late March, I could not imagine anyone attending my online storytime when so many authors, illustrators, and celebrities were already doing phenomenal ones with a more professional production quality than I could manage. But I have been humbled by how families value logging on for storytime with their librarian. Even families who have moved away from Cambridge are able to join us again. For a few minutes, we all find a little joy together through stories, art, and songs.
The library’s pivot to contactless book pickups and online programs seemed so seamless to the community. What was it really like for you and the rest of your team?
Full of seams! The amount of planning, adapting, and adjusting to make it all go each day is staggering: so many detailed and interconnected steps! However, the thrill of getting library materials safely into people’s hands again makes it worthwhile. People are so happy to get library books—the energy in that contactless exchange can feel magical.
You were the chair of the Caldecott Committee this past year and were unable to gather in person to celebrate at ALA last summer. What was that like for you and your committee?
It was bittersweet. We were heartbroken to sacrifice celebrating in person with our winners. But at the same time, we were overjoyed that this year’s ceremony was accessible to everyone. Instead of the traditional banquet in a hotel ballroom, the American Library Association held the event as an all-day virtual Book Award Celebration, free and open to the public [and still available to view]. The coordination and thought that went into making this year’s celebration special meant a great deal to me.
Do you have anything in particular that you’d like to say to publishers—about good practices/bad practices or things you’ve especially appreciated during the pandemic?
I would like to say thank you! I appreciate all of the extra effort and support for librarians and libraries. But mostly, I am so grateful that publishers have continued to create wonderful books for kids and teens this year. Whatever it is we are missing right now—be it comfort, adventure, quiet, laughter, tears, community, understanding—we can find it in a book. I applaud every extra step that went into publishing a children’s book in 2020.
One last question: What has become of the Children’s Room’s beloved gerbils since the pandemic?
Not to worry—Tallulah and Blanche Gerbil are okay! They spent an extended three-month holiday at the home of one of our youth services librarians and are now back in the Children’s Room. They eat, sleep, frantically run in their exercise wheel, and look forward to young readers being able to visit them again—they are surprisingly similar to us.
Betsy Groban has worked for decades in book publishing, public broadcasting, and arts advocacy.