Health-Based Library Outreach in the Covid Era | First Steps

Virtual maternal health sessions, books in clinics, and more ways for public libraries to reach families since the pandemic.

Recently, I got a COVID-19 test at a NYC Health + Hospitals site in a parking lot. On the information table, I was pleased to see a row of board books. I recognized many titles from City’s First Readers, an initiative of several New York City early literacy and family support organizations funded by the City Council. Several members of this collective impact project are health-based literacy organizations, including Reach Out and Read of Greater New York, which helped initiate this collaboration. It was gratifying to know we’re connecting with families where they are as the pandemic drags on.

Health-based initiatives are some of the best ways to reach young children not yet in school. If you are looking for a potential literacy partner, Reach Out and Read (ROR) is a good place to start. ROR is a national initiative that arranges for physicians and nurse practitioners to give new, developmentally and culturally appropriate books to children from birth to age five during checkups, and to advise parents about the importance of reading aloud. Research on the program shows that parents learn new ways to stimulate their children’s literacy development and read to their children more.

“ROR programming is active in all 50 states, and there are great ways to partner with a program in your community,” says Kari Kurjiaka, ROR of Greater New York’s program and external affairs manager. “Share information about your library and its programming at clinic sites. The clinics can post flyers in waiting spaces and encourage patients to use all the resources libraries have to offer.”

Collaboration with ROR can extend beyond information sharing. Many clinic sites encourage library staff and volunteers to go in and read with children in pediatric waiting rooms, sign families up for library cards, and distribute books to families, as Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) Hospital Storytelling program did pre-COVID. Though most health-care settings are limiting outside visitors due to COVID, this didn’t prevent Hospital Storytelling from continuing to provide resources to families. “We were able to distribute close to 10,000 books in 14 languages to various programs serving families, including 11 health-based programs, such as WIC clinics, inpatient and outpatient units, and family support centers,” says program coordinator Andre Powe.

New York Public Library (NYPL) partnered with ROR last spring to distribute early literacy activity booklets and information about the library to Bronx pediatric clinics. That work is expanding. “NYPL is working directly with clinic staff to create new, literacy-rich environments in waiting rooms by purchasing toddler-sized bookshelves, seating for shared reading, and developmentally appropriate toys. The library will provide diverse and multilingual books, alongside information about the library, to further distribute to Bronx clinics throughout the year,” says Eva Shapiro, NYPL manager of early childhood education.

Queens Public Library (QPL) deepened its partnership with Elmhurst Hospital, once the epicenter of the pandemic in New York City, by highlighting one of the most positive aspects of hospital care, new births.

“The goal of this project is to introduce literacy and a love of learning at birth, and to engage parents and their babies in this process,” says Gillian Miller, manager of early learning. Along with giving new families a commemorative card and a bib, QPL has created a webpage with all of the early-learning resources that the library and its partners offer to support new parents.

Bringing partners into virtual programming is another avenue for a win-win collaboration. BPL has invited many to its Maternal Health Summits, which have included Zoom presentations by local doulas, lactations consultants, Department of Health staff, and professionals from maternal and child health programs at local hospitals. “When expectant and new parents may be social distancing, it is gratifying that we can help them connect our health-care partners offering vital information,” says healthy communities associate Molly Kass-Kaufman, a Summit organizer.

Rachel G. Payne is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library.

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