In the summer of 2021, the Massachusetts Library System surveyed public librarians in the Commonwealth to explore outdoor library use during the pandemic and community recovery. Nearly all respondents (99%) reported that their public libraries increased use of the outdoors.  The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, Let’s Move at Libraries, and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine/Region 7 reviewed a draft of the survey. The stories shared in the survey are moving and inspiring. Some welled my eyes up with tears.  Massachusetts public libraries transitioned many services outdoors in response to the pandemic.  I’m very excited to share key findings, common themes, and success stories about how Massachusetts public libraries utilized the outdoors during the pandemic, plan to use the outdoors during community recovery, and what may help libraries more effectively utilize the outdoors. 

Key Findings:

What services were increased?  Curbside delivery was the most popular service added during the pandemic.  Libraries also increased access to WiFi, outdoor storytimes,  StoryWalks, non-traditional materials for outdoor use, outdoor book sales, and non-food gardens. Libraries reported planning to continue these services during community recovery, and also add outdoor seating.  Check out the full results of the environmental scan.  

What outdoor spaces were most utilized?  Popular outdoor spaces included the library lawn (82%), library sidewalks (48%), parking lot (46%), offsite/not adjacent park (37%), and library garden (34%).   Other outdoor spaces used included library patios, porches, courtyards, gazebos, local playgrounds, the town common, schools, the beach, church lawns, and trails.

What would help your library more effectively use outdoor spaces?  Public library workers shared interest in a permanent structure to protect from the elements (51%), outdoor furniture (54%), grants (46%), outdoor sound system (46%), a temporary structure to protect from elements (40%) and enhanced WiFi (37%).  Library workers also expressed interest in additional lighting, bike racks, electrical outlets, and funding for a patio/program area.  One library reported that they would like to build a band shell! 

Did your library make any changes in WiFi access during the pandemic? Public library workers reported increasing bandwidth, adding hotspots to circulating collections, changing the locations of extenders to increase WiFi access, and increasing access to 24/7.

Common Themes:

Communities have a new-found love of the outdoors! During the pandemic, the public discovered the joys of the outdoors. Lee Parker (Norton Public Library) shared, “Even when the library is open for browsing, many people seem to prefer being outside when possible and love being able to still see the library as a place where community connects.”  

Expanded Access to Library Materials:  In addition to curbside pick-up, many libraries offered outdoor book sales,  Little Free Libraries, and comfortable outdoor seating for reading.  Jessi Finnie (Scituate Town Library) shared, “We ran a Little Free Library outside of our doors all through the lockdown.  Our Friends allowed us to empty out their bookstore. We had people leaving us love notes (and requests)! We went through over a thousand books.” 

Outdoor Programming is the Safest Option: Jodi Levine (Pelham Library) reported, “We hosted the Forest Park Zoo, and in our tiny town we had 90 people come, which would be a huge turn-out in a non-pandemic year.  It didn’t feel crowded, though, and everyone was socially distanced in their groups, very respectful and thoroughly thrilled to be out at a safe program with their kids.” 

Outdoor Programs are Fun!  The Stockbridge Library Museum and Archives in Western Mass held a wide range of outdoor programs including a flower arranging show, ice sculpture festival, winter garden display, telescope viewing, yoga, dance performance, a dog show, reading to a dog, and local history walks. 

Outdoor Programs are Popular and Attract New Patrons:. Patty Dugan (Needham Free Public Library) reported, “Summer Reading attracted around 150 participants socially-distanced outside.” Megan Balbesky (Westborough Public Library) shared, “Baby Goat Yoga on the Lawn and Name that Song on the Lawn Trivia were both highly sought after events that the library hosted and patrons loved!  Both were well-attended and we had many walk-up participants and those who just wanted to watch or listen!”  

Ideal Place for Play and Family Engagement:  With outdoor storytimes, puppet shows, magic shows, extreme bubbles, and lawn games, public libraries got very creative with the outdoors for family engagement.  Deena Caswell (Bushnell-Sage Library, Sheffield) shared that the backyard space was key to offering programming during the pandemic. They partnered with South Berkshires Kids, Storywalks, and even installed a new playground on the library grounds. 

DIY Crafts:  Public library workers offered take and make crafts for kids, teens, and adults. Crafting programs offered included outdoor painting, tie dye, print screenings, and knitting.   

Increased Access to Health and Wellness:  Public library workers reported offering a variety of health and wellness classes including fitness classes, chair yoga, baby yoga, QiGong, Tai Chi, and salsa dancing.  Some hosted programs outdoors onsite as well as at local parks. 

Open Space for Arts & Entertainment: Public library workers reported hosting outdoor movies,  ukulele jam sessions, and concerts.  Denise Farmosa (Richard Sugden Library, Spencer) shared, “Having library programs at various outdoor venues has been a great success this summer.  We are holding concerts at parks around town. It’s great to see lots of new faces.”  

Looking Forward:

Plans for Library Use Outdoors During Community Recovery:  Many library workers expressed interest continuing to offer outdoor programs.  Plans for future outdoor programs include summer library programs, book clubs, concerts, crafts, educational strolls, lectures, maker labs, movies, nature identification, nature walks, pop-up libraries, scavenger hunts, trivia, and yoga.  Library workers also reported interest in enhancing the infrastructure of the library’s outdoor space with new and improved seating, lighting, electrical outlets, patios, and bike racks.  Nearly half of the respondents expressed interest in grants to fund outdoor library services.

Food for Thought: The new-found love of the outdoors is an incredible opportunity for libraries.  Libraries should continue to use the outdoors.  Libraries with limited options for use of outdoor space onsite can connect with local community organizations to offer services outdoors.

What’s next?  Survey responses have been provided to the MBLC to generate ideas for LSTA grants and to MHEC to explore discounts for library consortia purchasing.  Responses have also been provided to Let’s Move at Libraries to help share success stories and best practices.  Stay tuned for blog interviews with Massachusetts Library System members to learn more.