Longview-Kelso children in need of a good book can head to Jamie Craig’s house on North 19th Avenue in Kelso.
Just find the house marked 1007, walk past the tetherball pole, through the gate, to a wooden shed with a welcome sign.
Open the hand-painted blue door and step into the Butler Acres Neighborhood Library — an 8-by-10-foot space, home to at least 1,000 children books that youngsters can check out and return for free.
“You’d be surprised by how many books I can fit in that shed,” said Craig.
Since the pandemic forced local libraries to close public access in 2020, parents and library staff are finding alternative ways to keep books in kids’ hands.
For the mother of four, that meant creating her own library last September when she noticed her kids weren’t reading as much as before libraries closed.
“I just started brainstorming,” she said. “‘How can I bring libraries to my kids and other kids in [in the area]?’”
Craig turned to the shed in her side yard. She cleared the rakes, moved the lawnmower and relocated the hundreds of kids books from her house into the space. She raised about $140 online for new paint and motion detection lights.
Then the donations came in — from toddler board books to young adult chapter books and everything in between. Think series like the Bernstein Bears, Dork Diaries and the historical nonfiction kids’ tales Who Was?, as well as games, puzzles, magazines and newspapers.
“A ton of people in the community and neighborhood just made it happen with monetary and book donations,” she said, “people I don’t even know.”
At the Butler Acres Neighborhood Library, kids and parents can check out up to three items at a time by writing the title and their contact information on a form in the shed. Craig will follow up if the items aren’t returned.
She said only one person has been in the library at a time, so far, and advises visitors to social distance and wear masks. Items that were touched are left in a basket for Craig to clean before replacing on the shelves.
Since September, Craig estimates that she's had 50 patrons inside her library.
That’s 50 more than the libraries in Kelso and Longview, which have both been closed to public access since last March.
Public libraries are government entities.
The 33,000-square-foot Longview Public Library, for instance, is managed by a board appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council.
What patrons can’t do inside the library, they can do online, said Longview Public Library Director Chris Skaugset.
Online, patrons can request materials and print documents, then pick them up at the facility’s drive thru, from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, as well as 1-4 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays.
At the Kelso library, patrons can reserve materials and print documents online, then staff will bring the items to patrons' car, said Kelso Public Library Director Natalee Corbett. They also offer activity kits for kids and digital e-book and audio books.
In Longview, kids can join book clubs over Zoom; watch programs like story time through Facebook and YouTube; and access online databases like ProQuest for homework help. For those who don't have Wi-Fi at home, staff will soon offer mobile Wi-Fi hotspots so patrons can access the internet in most locations.
Skaugset said libraries’ reading programs are among the most important services they offer. Just last Halloween and Christmas, the Longview library gave away 800 books to local kids.
“Regular reading and learning is critical,” said Skaugset. “One of the reasons we have summer reading [programs] is to help children avoid that summer slide during summer vacation…”
The “summer slide” refers to the decline in learning that students endure when out of school over summer break.
Corbett agreed that routine reading practice is critical.
"If kids fall behind in developing these skills, it can be difficult to catch up," she said. "Reading regularly helps maintain the skills children have already acquired."
However, a recent study by the Brookings Institute showed little decline in students’ reading retention from 2019 to 2020, despite less time spent in school due to the pandemic.
The Butler Acres Neighborhood Library, said Craig, will stay open "as long as there's a need."
“With COVID going on, we just lose sight of things,” she said “It seems like reading time has gone unnoticed, so having a resource for parents with new readers can help.”
Skaugset said he and other library administrators are waiting for guidelines to see when they can re-open, possibly by appointments first. Until then, staff will continue to support readers from behind closed doors.
“We must do everything we can to ensure that children have access to reading materials so that they can continue to succeed at school and in life,” he said. “It’s ... the most important thing that a library can provide to its community.”