Typically, three times a week, the branches of the Alamance County library system hold storytime. Filled with stories, songs and other activities, caregivers and children gather for a program that the libraries use to encourage literacy and build community. 

Now, the librarians read to a camera.

Virtual storytime simulates the actual program by having the Alamance librarians plan themed, pre-recorded storytimes that are posted online for public viewing.

Storytime is what Alamance County Public Libraries’ consider their most popular service. The idea of a virtual version had been on the minds of librarians for a while, originally intended as an option for working families who could not attend storytime.

The librarians were unable to make it happen because of copyright restrictions from various publishers. But, as libraries across the countries closed due to the coronavirus, publishers began to loosen these restrictions.

Now, Alamance libraries post two virtual storytimes a week on their collective Facebook page — themes ranging from dinosaurs to Star Wars. 

Elizabeth Weislak, the youth services coordinator for Alamance County Public Libraries, said she knows the virtual approach isn’t quite the same but assured the heart behind it is.

“When parents think of library programs they attended as a kid, storytimes are one of them. They’ve been around forever and we’re always trying to meet the ever-changing need of our community, but there’s always a need for sharing stories,” Weislak said. “The focus is celebrating literature, preparing kids for success in school and just enjoying being part of a community.”

Virtual storytime began on March 23 and was immediately well-received because of the warm feedback from viewers. Using Facebook for storytime was the easy choice because it was the social media platform the librarians knew best, used the most and the Premiere option allows for scheduling flexibility according to Amanda Gramley, adult programming coordinator.

“We still encourage viewers to comment as they are watching, and we make sure to be on the page so that we can respond,” Gramley said.

The storytime videos each receive anywhere from over 100 to over 600 views. Gramley said people have left Facebook comments saying the community appreciates the convenience of watching the videos whenever they like instead of at the scheduled time. 

“Love it. What a wonderful storytime! My little loves dinos!” storytime attendee Jennifer Johnson wrote on one of the library's Facebook videos. 

Johnson attended storytime with her 3-year-old weekly before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, she and her daughter tune into Facebook each week during virtual storytime. 

“Storytime is so interactive with singing, dancing and fun time with friends,” Johnson said. “We miss all of that, but virtual storytime is one of the few times a week now that my 3-year-old is really engaged and singing and playing along. It’s nice to see a little bit of normal.” 

The librarians try to offer programs for different age groups. The storytime videos are recommended for children in preschool up to third grade. For children beyond third grade, there are activities like notebook paper origami tutorials. The Mebane branch offers yoga storytime for all ages once a month, which they’ve adapted into a very popular mindful movement series on Facebook and YouTube

“We’re not just reading books for fun. We’re showing parents how to read to their kids and give them simple ideas to do at home. You don’t have to do something super fancy for your kids to be learning, and we really try to model that during storytime,” Weislak said. 

The normality is something the library has really tried to emphasize since beginning their online programs. For example, the Mebane branch grows butterflies every year, and they found a way to continue the tradition through social media. 

“One of the librarians posted the caterpillars’ growth on Instagram every day and managed to capture the caterpillar coming out of the chrysalis, which people thought was pretty cool because it normally happens so fast that you miss it,” Weislak said.

The Alamance library system is currently working to figure out its summer programming. It is yet to be determined whether there will be in-person activities, packets and programs from a distance or something entirely virtual. 

“We know that we are facing months of either completely virtual programs or at least programs that have a strong virtual component,” Gramley said. “We’re continually investigating equipment and practices so that we can provide the best experience possible for our patrons.”

Either way, the libraries want to continue focusing on beating the summer “slide,” or loss of academic skills and knowledge over the course of long school holidays, and keeping kids engaged in reading and literacy. They stress this is more important than ever and they still want to keep it fun because North Carolina schools are online for the remainder of the school year.

None of the online activities would be possible without the library staff, who have all had to learn and adapt on the fly. 

“It’s been a group effort between the librarians at different branches, but it’s gone very well considering unexpected and recent events,” Weislak said. “We’re thankful to have the opportunity to still provide programs, entertainment and information for the community, and we can’t wait to be back together again when it's safe.”