Last spring, Vicki Karlovsky, Adult Services Outreach Associate at Deerfield (IL) Public Library, knew the pandemic was preventing her from reaching some of the community members that needed the library the most. Karlovsky focuses primarily on serving senior citizens and adults with developmental disabilities. It was from this need that Deerfield’s Library Lifeline initiative was born.
After the library closed on March 13, 2020 due to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, Karlovsky became concerned about her vulnerable and potentially isolated patrons. “People with disabilities and seniors lost critical social and educational lifelines when everything shut down,” she explains. “That was at the forefront of my mind when I came up with the [Library Lifeline] idea.”
Library Lifeline began as an opportunity for vulnerable populations to contact Karlovsky with questions about technology or the library’s e-resources, and to discuss books or have a book or poem read to them. In the early days, it was deliberately left open-ended with the goal of serving patrons as effectively as possible and ensuring that they still felt connected to the library. Patrons were invited to call and speak with Karlovsky for any of these reasons, or even just as a check-in when they needed someone to talk to.
The initial response was made up of many of the library’s regulars: patrons that attended Karlovsky’s in-person programs or members of groups that she interacted with while performing outreach. Library Lifeline has also appealed to many homebound seniors who, even outside of the pandemic, cannot typically visit the library often or at all. When developing the program, one of Karlovsky’s stipulations was that it should not be limited to Deerfield residents, and patrons from other communities haven also taken part.
On average, she says, she generally fields five to six Library Lifeline calls per week. From the program’s launch in April 2020 through the end of the year, the service was utilized 200 times. Most calls take about an hour, although exact timing varies depending on the patron and nature of their call.
“There are some that are regulars,” Karlovsky explains. “I have some that are weekly. We do a book reading and discussion — we do weekly sessions. There are some where it’s just whenever they need help. I have people who need some help finding social services or getting connected with agencies.”
Other times, her colleagues will find themselves stumped on how to help a patron. Those interactions are then referred to Karlovsky for a Library Lifeline session. The ultimate goal of interactions such as providing e-resource help is for the patron to eventually become self-sufficient in what they are trying to accomplish. Patrons’ usage of the service has shifted a bit as more things have begun to reopen, too. Karlovsky notes that the number of patrons calling just to talk to another person has decreased somewhat.
When the pandemic is eventually over, Karlovsky plans to continue Library Lifeline in order to improve the library’s accessibility to homebound patrons and other special populations. The exact details of how its description and logistics may shift remain unknown at this time, but she feels strongly that connecting with patrons via phone, Zoom, and Skype fills a need and ensures they remain engaged with the library.
For librarians thinking about rolling out a similar service at their libraries, Karlovsky’s biggest piece of advice focuses on how to treat participants.
“The biggest thing is [to] come from a place of empathy and compassion. Assume that you don’t know how bad they’ve had it since this began. I know it’s been bad for everyone. It’s been a societal trauma, but we don’t know what they’ve been through. Being patient, being compassionate, being empathetic, [and] not getting impatient” have been critical, she explains.
Preparedness is also key, especially in sessions that take place over the phone rather than through videoconferencing. For less tech-savvy patrons, Karlovsky always makes sure she can speak as clearly and simply as possible when providing training on e-resources. Such instruction can take longer than anticipated based on the patron’s comfort level with technology, so she reminds librarians to set aside enough time for sessions and not be surprised if something seemingly simple takes a long time.
In terms of soft skills, listening and building rapport with participants is also key. Collaboration with local organizations is also necessary to ensure the community is aware of these offerings. In Karlovsky’s case, some patrons were referred to Library Lifeline from other groups, such as her local senior center.
Ultimately, Library Lifeline has been a very positive experience in Deerfield, and Karlovsky looks forward to seeing it continue. For more information about the library’s services, visit their website or call 847-945-3311.