ImagineIF Libraries Extend Hours, Continue Take-Home Education Kits

Despite altered hours, staff and programming during the pandemic, the library system has seen hundreds of patrons a day

By Micah Drew
ImagineIF Libraries in Kalispell on April 24, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most businesses last spring, ImagineIF libraries looked for ways to continue serving patrons. Starting Jan. 4, the library system expanded its hours and will continue to provide as many services as possible for Flathead residents of all ages.

With the new hours, the Kalispell branch is open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, except for Wednesday, when it’s open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. to accommodate early school releases. In Columbia Falls, hours are 12 to 6 p.m. Monday and Tuesday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, while the Bigfork location’s hours are from 12 to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.

Curbside pickup hours are extended past normal closing time and hours can be found at www.imagineiflibraries.org/updates. Computer services are still in place, with each location offering both desktop and personal device stations to patrons for 30-minute sessions each day.

“This is all a balancing act, of how we can safely have staff in the building,” ImagineIF Libraries Director Connie Behe said. “We are always analyzing new information, just looking for every window possible to increase our offerings.”

The three-branch library system has more than 30,000 cardholders and hundreds of thousands of print materials. After the initial shutdown, the libraries reopened on May 19, operating with limited hours and staff and enhanced safety measures in accordance with guidance from the Flathead City-County Health Department.

Despite limited hours, throughout the pandemic the libraries still had an “incredible” number of people coming through the doors. According to Behe, the Kalispell branch alone saw between 300-400 patrons daily.

Since in-person activities are on hiatus during the pandemic, the libraries have pivoted to providing a robust hands-on learning experience for kids and adults with their monthly take-home educational kits, meant to provide intellectually stimulating activities for all age groups.

Ellie Newell, youth services librarian in Kalispell, said the library has been giving out an average of 775 kits per month for ages 2-18 since September.

“That’s been almost 4,000 kits including January,” Newell said. “We plan to continue the take-home kits at least into May if the pandemic stays the same.”

The kits are broken down into three youth age groups, as well as adult kits.

For preschoolers and toddlers, the Takeout Storytime Kit is designed to replace the ImagineIF early literacy classes. The kits involve science and art exploration, songs and other activities that are heavily hands on.

“The hands-on learning piece, it’s heavily tied to early literacy,” Behe said. “ I love them because they ask parents to be involved with the child, and we know that the hands-on learning makes literacy stick.”

For elementary-aged kids, the Mini Take-Home Kit has extra emphasis on science, culture and art. The Teen Take & Make Kits challenge youths with in-depth explorations of the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) fields, and have included card tricks, robotics and making fidget toys.

In addition to the take-home kits, the librarians have been working to push out content for youths online. The children’s department has come up with more than 150 original storytime videos to put on YouTube.

“Kids can watch the librarians they’ve known and grown up with online,” Behe said. “It lets them see the familiar community faces during all this, and provides this kind of anchor in a chaotic time.”

ImagineIF has been working to offer adults many of the same benefits. Behe said an adult version of the take-home learning kits has also been a success. The January version is a journal, with different writing prompts each week for adults. The librarians estimate that around 500 adults kits have been given out each month.

“As early as when the county library was established in 1942, our mission has been to provide a safe space to access reading and learning,” Behe said. “That’s the whole reason we’re here. Even though our methods have changed, our mission hasn’t.”

Visit imagineiflibraries.org/take-make-kits for more information about the take-home kits.

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