HANCOCK COUNTY — Two toddlers’ eyes lit up when they spotted each other in the children’s section of the Hancock County Public Library, where in-person activities have resumed after a lengthy shutdown due to COVID-19.
“They were so excited to see each other again, they grabbed hands and rushed into story time,” said Cathy Riley, the library’s youth services manager, who witnessed the happy reunion at the library’s Greenfield branch last week.
The children’s section is once again abuzz with activity after the pandemic drastically altered activities for much of the past two years. That all changed at the start of March when the library’s robust calendar of in-person events returned to normal.
It’s been a challenging two years for Riley, who loves hosting story time and other youth events at the library. She’s thrilled to be hosting children and their families once again for a variety of fun activities.
In-person events for teens and adults are also back in full swing, which has been great news for patrons who see the library as so much more than just a place to get books.
“It’s also a great place for people to get connected, especially those with same-age children or similar interests,” Riley said.
On Wednesday, she hosted a Pokémonparty for school-age children at the Greenfield branch, where first through fifth-graders were able to design a Styrofoam Pokéball, create a Pokémon button and capture a paper Pokémon.
Riley said such events are not only great ways to connect people, but to promote learning and literacy as well.
“We’re very aware of how kids learn in a variety of ways. If we spark their interest — if we have a program like Pokémon, and they’re really into that, then we can really build on that,” she said.
“We can say, ‘Hey, did you see the Pokemon graphic novels or the handbooks in nonfiction?’ By tying their interests into the materials we have, we’re raising awareness of the different ways they can get this information.”
Lana Judge has always looked to the library as a bountiful resource to engage and educate her kids — Greyson, 7, and Jael, 5 — who she homeschools at their Greenfield home.
“We love the library. It’s a great resource for fun and for school,” said Judge, who was overjoyed to see in-person events return.
When the pandemic was about to shut the library down in March 2020, Judge’s family rushed to the library to stock up on books for her kids.
“While everybody else was buying toilet paper, we got as many library books as we could,” the mom recalled with a laugh. The family later relied on the library’s drive-through service, which allowed patrons to select and pick up books in the parking lot.
Judge thinks the library staff did a fantastic job of serving patrons throughout the pandemic, despite having to temporarily cancel in-person visits and events.
Administrators quickly pivoted, coming up with a full lineup of virtual events like story times, craft tutorials and musical performances. They also provided take-home craft bags for kids and home delivery of books and movies for homebound patrons.
As COVID started to wane last summer, in-person events were held outdoors on the library grounds.
In-person programming returned indoors last September but was canceled once again as COVID cases spiked at the start of 2022.
Riley said bringing back in-person activities at the library’s two branches—in Greenfield and New Palestine—has been a breath of fresh air.
“It’s so nice seeing everyone again,” said Riley, who has worked at the library for nearly a decade now and loves watching the library’s littlest patrons grow up over the years.
“I’ve got kids who come back and say hello, which is great. I had one boy stop by who used to come to story time my first year here, and he’s now taller than me, which he made sure to point out,” she said with a laugh.
Frequent library patron Abby Strong said she and her four kids treasure the children’s librarians at the Sugar Creek branch.
“They’re always such a good resource for choosing books for us,” said Strong, whose children range in age from 1 to 10. Being homeschooled, the family relies on the librarians to help track down books and resources for both educational and recreational reading.
“We love our local librarians. They go above and beyond,” said Strong.
They not only thoughtfully suggest books that are engaging, but they also put together amazing crafts, musical performances and other events that are great for kids, she said.
Katie Sickmann also appreciates the librarians and the services they provide.
“Our children were very sad when (in-person activities were stopped) and they were unable to see the librarians and the other kids in person,” said the New Palestine mom, who frequently takes her kids Lennox, 4, and Millie, 2 , to the Sugar Creek branch.
Her children are still bummed that they can’t yet play with toys or go inside the playhouse in the children’s area due to ongoing COVID restrictions but, for now, they enjoy peeking into the playhouse to see what new things the librarians have displayed inside.
Sickmann is thankful for the chance to take her children to story time and craft activities at the library once again.
“Since my kids are homeschooled, going to the library is like their preschool. It’s their only outlet besides church, and they love going and getting to play with other kids. It’s been awesome,” she said.
Riley enjoys seeing both children and adults connect socially at the library’s children’s area, where parents are often left to mingle while their children engage in story time or other events.
“The library really has been one of our favorite hangouts,” said Judge. “It’s a great place to meet other people who love books.”
Riley said a lot of thought and planning goes into each library event, from children’s story time to adult book discussions, all of which are designed to be educational and engaging.
Story time events are offered at various age levels: Birth to 2 years old, which focuses on music and beginning motor skills; 2 to 3-and-a-half years old, which focuses on pre-literacy and fine fine motor skills; and preschool, which features longer stories and more advanced crafts.
The staff tries to get creative with fun programs kids will love, like make-and-take craft events, scavenger hunts and gaming parties. Adults are invited to learn and connect through informational workshops and book discussions.
It’s all done in the name of making learning fun, said Riley.
“Literacy is our core reason for being here,” she said, “but these activities are fun ways to supplement the different ways people like to learn.”