Venue Spotlight: The Ann Arbor District Library

The Ann Arbor District Library’s staff observed the progressing spread of COVID-19 with a keen eye towards optimal safety measures. Like all libraries, it remained closed for the duration of the three-month period of Michigan’s shelter-at-home executive order, to curtail the spread of the virus. But Sherlonya Turner says that while their staff certainly considered the safety of their patrons, they quickly began preparing to fill “the need for normalcy.”

While this series has talked to venues designed almost exclusively for live music, the library is its own unique kind of venue, albeit with much more variety in its scheduled programming. Local music venues could only go so far when it came to providing virtual experiences. But when it came to the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL), says Turner, the impetus was on maintaining that sense of normalcy for library patrons.

“This time has been weird; there’s nobody who would say it wasn’t weird,” said Turner, who oversees public experience, outreach, and desk services. “Normally, (the library) offers many storytimes, and since we had the staff and the technology, that was the first thing we knew we could continue to offer on a daily basis. We wanted our families to have something from us that they could depend on — just like they would have before. It started there…”

“Cake Reviews with Sherlonya” – Reviews of pop culture shows as interpreted through baking a cake! Image courtesy of the AADL.

The AADL right at your fingertips

Drawing upon the versatility of staff, individual strengths, creative input, and overall enthusiasm, the AADL has been delivering an impressive and consistent stream of virtual programming and video productions through the AADLTV YouTube channel — as well as engaging patrons through social media platforms and its regularly-updated website. Within the first month of the shutdown, AADLTV allowed librarians and staff to continue offering events and programs to its community virtually.

“For AADLTV, at this time, one of the reasons we’re able to do all of these things is that our staff very much wants to be in service to the public to the same extent that we would have been while we were open. And, in some ways, we don’t think it’s that different to what we would normally do. But there are some new things that this format allowed us to do, like the Dungeons & Dragons March Madness Bracket. And suddenly that created a new activity for us.”

Turner said that the questions that guided staff’s efforts in programming were: “…What is the moment that we’re all living through right now? And what are the tools we have, right now, that could provide something interesting for our community?” Turner said that one thing that she’s appreciated about AADLTV is the debut of the “Saturday Show,” which is a variety show for kids. Throughout April and May, the library was also coordinating virtual events for Adults in the evenings and for school-aged kids during the early afternoons.

Turner reflected on how, after three months of virtual programming, there’s no doubt a small population of new library patrons who have now only known a world in which AADL’s programming is in video-form. “It’s interesting that there’s some folks, who are new library users, have gotten to know their library through AADLTV, and that, eventually, they can come into the library and see in person all of these people who have been providing them entertainment during these weird times.”

Turner credits the vibrancy of AADLTV and all virtual programming to the work culture and collaborative nature of the library’s staff and department heads. Anyone on staff is encouraged to propose an idea — Turner says this strengthens the library’s ability to deliver a diversity of compelling, fun, and informative programming. This allows each staff member to imbue that idea with their own experiences, their own passions, their own skill sets. “Our library has always had this openness to letting people try things, and we don’t limit those opportunities based on job classifications. If you have an idea, we’ll hear it out.”

The Ann Arbor District Library system is composed of the Downtown Library and four branch libraries: Malletts Creek, Traverwood, Westgate, and Pittsfield. The history of this library stretches back more than 150 years! If you haven’t gotten a library card yet, you can obtain a resident card for free if you live within the Ann Arbor Public Schools boundaries (with exception of Northfield Township). While the library was closed, cardholders were still able to access a wide variety of digital resources, including eBooks, audiobooks, and databases.

As of June 15, the library announced that it would begin accepting returned materials, with contactless pickup of materials set to start June 22. To find out more about the AADL’s phased reopening process, visit here.

The banner image for AADLTV from the library’s main website. Image courtesy of the AADL.

Maintaining normalcy in times of great change

Beforehand, Turner and the library staff were intent on maintaining a sense of normalcy. But, in the future, those sensibilities will shift toward the ways in which everyone in the community (as well as on staff) is adjusting to a new normal. “Everyone has had their own unique experiences over the last three months. When you provide direct-service, especially at a public library, you really get to know people. And there will be people who have had experiences that have changed them. One thing I’ve thought about is to make sure that we are listening and that we are adaptive to…not only the new reality…but the new people that have come out of this…”

Turner has been with the library for almost 18 years, now. Public service has been a passion of hers for her entire professional life, and beyond. And said that “…when we’re recommitting to listening, what weighs on my mind is that listening takes a lot of forms. We’ll also be observing how patrons are interacting with our services now, and what their underlying questions there are. How do we really listen, and how do we continue to be responsive and continue to anticipate the public’s needs? We’re going to have to come with a lot of sensitivity.”

In the near future, you’ll be able to interact with several of the faces and personalities that have entertained and informed you through the AADLTV service. But as we start to slowly return to our venues, even as we start to return to a public library, we have to anticipate a very gradual return to something that resembles normalcy. But one of AADLTV’s most notable achievements is that during a time of considerable upheaval and disorientation, staff allowed its community the opportunity to maintain a sense of comfort, but above all — a sense of connection. 

Jeff Milo
Jeff Milo
Jeff covers music for Current, posting weekly show previews and highlighting new bands in the area.

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