Looking for creative ideas to expand library programs and services outdoors? In this interview, Hope Bodwell, Director of the Monson Free Library, tells us about the many ways the library successfully moved programs and services outdoors during the pandemic, as well as, the library’s plans for future use of the outdoors. This is the third in a series of four interviews featuring how public libraries evolved during the pandemic by moving services and programs outdoors.
Tell us how the Monson Free Library expanded services to the outdoors.
Hope Bodwell: Here in Monson we are fortunate to be surrounded by parks, trails, a wildlife sanctuary, working farms and our very own library patio! We have always partnered well with our neighbors but we really kicked it up a notch during the worst of the pandemic to the present day. With a little thought and creativity we took our indoor programs and brought them outside. We had always done “Story Time on the Go” during summer reading and this always included local businesses and town departments. In an effort to keep our families healthy we concentrated on all our outdoor resources. This included story times at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary walking their trails and learning about good and bad bugs, visiting the goats at Westview Farms Creamery, enjoying the property and play area at Silver Bell Farm, and learning about planting flowers at the Early Childhood Center Butterfly Garden. Adding to our summer reading offering, we used our local park, thanks to our partnership with our Parks and Recreation department, to provide Yoga for Families, a seven-week program funded by the Local Cultural Council and a four-week Meditation and Qi Gong for Teens program funded by a local business. We took our summer reading finale to our local Family Golf Center where Jay Mankita played music and told stories while the children enjoyed ice cream and a round of mini golf afterward.
We also adapted some of our adult programs for the great outdoors. We have been hosting a weekly Qi Gong program indoors for a few years and this was a perfect fit to take outside to our local park. Our longstanding Appetite for Art discussion group was very happy to meet on our patio after a long winter of Zoom meetings and our monthly Scrabble players enjoyed the patio as well. And this brings me to our library patio.
The patio was complete in 2018 and while we have slowly utilized it for programming and events, we really took advantage of this outdoor space during the pandemic for meetings, story time under the stars, author events, and even a library tag sale. The patio was also the inspiration for Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary to offer to work with community volunteers to design and install a native plant pollinator garden.
How did your community respond to outdoor library services and programs?
Hope Bodwell: Our community responded enthusiastically to more outdoor activities. People were hesitant to gather indoors so this was a healthy option but it also brought us more visibility in the community and helped gain a new audience and a renewed interest in library activities. Basically, we took the show on the road and people responded! We have always been proactive in bringing the library into the community but this was a time when people were looking for something, anything, to get them out of the house and into a social atmosphere. It was a perfect opportunity for the library to fill that need in a very visible way.
What are your library’s plans for future use of the outdoors?
Hope: We have big plans for the future! We are excited about the trajectory we are on and want to keep the momentum rolling. So much good has happened in our community despite the pandemic. We have a newer disc golf course, a nine hole golf course that has always supported us, a new pickle ball court and many other opportunities with all of our partners. One project we have worked on for over a year is a story walk starting on Main Street in front of our town offices and ending at the playground. This has recently been installed by our Highway Department and we are planning the grand opening.
Another key event we are very proud of is our “annual” Patio Party that was put on hold in 2020, after just two years. Honestly, the most comments we received about library services was about when we would bring back the party! We brought it back in October 2021. A local business sponsored the band and we raised money through raffles to provide a music series on the patio throughout the 2022 season. We can definitively say that our patio will be busier than ever with programs and music next year!
We also received significant funding for health and wellness programs from a local business. While some of this money will be for lectures and acquisitions, we plan on working on a walking book club, running groups and winter activities such as snowshoeing.
What lessons did you learn that may help other libraries?
Hope: The biggest lesson is to partner with your local businesses, organizations, and town departments. They want to help. They have resources and an audience. Partnering is the best promotion a library can do to garner interest for programs and services.
Another lesson is to get creative. Throw out preconceived notions and try it. You may be surprised.
Keep the library in front of the public. They want to see you outside of the building. This will make them want to come inside.
Cultivate those volunteers! It’s not always easy but if you can find some good people to help with these initiatives they will bring their networks and advocate for you you within the community.
Finally, ask for the money. It is out there. We are a small community with a very limited economic base yet if we ask, businesses want to help. As a library, if you do an event at the mini golf course, you bring them new business. They will return the favor.
Hope: Nothing profound, just have fun with it! Bringing your library outside is easier and more rewarding than you think.
Interview with Hope Bodwell, Director, Monson Free Library
Interviewed by Michelle Eberle, Consultant, Massachusetts Library System