Yet, Nicole Newsom, a program coordinator in Youth Services Outreach, is already thinking about summer. Her mind, though, is less on cloudless blue skies and warm weather, and more on books — as in how Multnomah County Library’s book distribution program for youth will unfold.
“Are the parks going to look like pre-COVID times or are they going to look like last summer?’’ Nicole wonders. “We kind of have to be prepared for both of those options.’’
The COVID-19 pandemic dictates as much, as it’s arrival in 2020 largely upended gatherings in parks and other lunch sites— places where the library distributes book bags in the summer to families, and readers and readers-to-be, from newborn to age 18.
“Normally, we would take Summer Reading game boards and books and prizes to those sites and meet kids where they were,’’ Nicole says.
Library interactions in that way changed dramatically as the state limited large gatherings and introduced physical distancing measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.
And though logistically problematic, the situation was not viewed as a long-term inconvenience by Jennifer Studebaker, youth services manager for Multnomah County Library.
“We tried to approach this work from the yes-place,’’ she says. “We worked to find ways to get high-quality and culturally reflective materials into the hands of both partner organizations and youth and families directly.’’
For Nicole, it became the right project at the right time. In her regular work, Nicole routinely manages logistics, from working with volunteers to apply identification stickers on books, to organizing books in bags or boxes. So last summer, Nicole helped Youth Outreach Services redirect the book distribution program to meet the pandemic challenge.
“I was sort of in that position to take on whatever came up next,’’ she says.
Nicole started her library career in 1991 as a clerk and has been in Youth Services Outreach since 2008. Over the past 10 months, she’s worked with more than 30 library colleagues, all pursuing a common goal and purpose.
Studebaker commends the group’s efforts and work — a combination of pain-staking attention to detail and heavy lifting. “Each item has to be selected, ordered, received, and processed,’’ she says.
“In normal times, the library has a large team of volunteers to help process these materials. During the pandemic, access services library staff have stepped up to the challenge and worked through a mountain of materials to ensure youth in our community have relevant books to take home with them.’’
Since last summer through February 2021, the program has delivered about 44,000 books in Multnomah County Library-branded bags to youth across the county through various summer lunch sites and housing communities. She says roughly 3,000-8,000 books have been distributed monthly since last summer.
The book distribution program accesses youth in housing communities through a Multnomah County Library partnership with Home Forward, a public corporation housing authority that serves Multnomah County, Portland, Gresham, and other communities in the county. Books are provided by publishers through Book Rich Environments, a program of the National Book Foundation.
The Library Foundation funds cultural and language books for non-English speaking communities, including African languages, and African-American Black cultural books. The funding allows the library to provide high-quality, culturally- and linguistically-appropriate books for targeted communities.
“We can give kids books that they can see themselves in,’’ Nicole says. “Without those additional funds, we would not be able to provide books in Arabic, Tigrinya, Oromo, Burmese, and many other languages.’’
Support from The Library Foundation also provides “the newest and best books by and about BIPOC people,’’ she says, referring to Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities.
In most instances, books delivered to housing communities will be distributed to children and families by a resident coordinator. But on occasion, the team makes deliveries directly to the youth from a Multnomah County Library van.
“We’re standing outside in the hot summer sun, and they sit down on the curb, and they immediately take out the books and start reading one,’’ Nicole says of an outing last summer.
“I had a couple of kids tell me, ‘I haven’t had new books to read in four months, and I’m so excited to have some new books to read.’ ’’
For Nicole, this is an example of the work at its most rewarding.
“We’ve seen appreciation and gratitude from people,’’ she says. “It’s been really fabulous.’’
Written by Wade Nkrumah