Memphis libraries' expanded programs promise a summer of fun

 Looking for some free summer fun? Memphis Public Libraries has adventure, entertainment, and education for Mid-Southerners of all ages. 

MPL is expanded several longstanding and new programs thanks to grants from International Paper and other partners. 

In June and July, patrons of all ages can participate in the Explore Memphis reading and activity challenge. Kids 9-18 can also spend June and July at virtual camps learning filmmaking, robotics, and more. Registration for the camps ends June 1. 

Multiple branches will soon boast new teen centers and DiscoverRead family language and literacy centers. The Family Tunes and Tales program, which pairs story-reading with live music from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, is also expanding to include take-home activity kits.

Meanwhile, the library has introduced two new programs during the pandemic: a virtual chess club and virtual escape rooms, which is expanding to include in-person, mobile escape rooms. 
The Memphis Public Library's Family Tunes and Tales program pairs story-reading with live music from the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Those readings are now being recorded and the program is expanding to include take-home activity kits so kids can follow along with the story at home. (Memphis Library Foundation)
Scroll down for a list of programs and descriptions. Call 2-1-1 or visit your local library for more branch-specific information.

Memphis Library Foundation Executive Director Christine Weinreich said libraries have been looking for ways to keep screen-weary kids interested in virtual programming.

“One of the things that always comes out of challenges is innovation,” she said. “That was the first step, trying to come up with a way to engage kids through a computer that wasn't just sitting there watching something. So our outreach team, last year, developed completely virtual escape rooms. They're incredibly educational but very engaging.”

Weinreich said most of the new program expansions will be covered by existing library staff, who are already trained to run the existing program components and other literacy initiatives. 

However, they have recently added a new staff member to ensure programming and information is available in Spanish. 

"We're working to add another Spanish speaker to the staff to expand our capacity in that regard," she added.

Why Does a Public Library Have a Foundation Raising Funds? 
Weinreich said the majority of funding for MPL's programming, as well as the books and materials that patrons can check out, comes from private dollars. That’s why the MLF works to secure grants and donations to support the library system. That support comes from a number of sources including philanthropies, businesses, and individuals.

MPL is publicly funded by the City of Memphis but that funding only covers the system's basic operations like payroll and building maintenance. The vast majority of Tennessee's state and federal library dollars go to the rural counties, which leaves its four major cities to fend for themselves.

Weinreich said these partners have been key funders in the library's new and recently expanded programming: International Paper, Canadian National Railway, and the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant.

Do the Library's Programs Make a Difference?
Weinreich said libraries don’t have access to personal data like school test scores to measure the impact of their programs. Instead, they look at program attendance numbers and how many students keep coming back.

MLF also asks program participants to fill out surveys. Weinreich said adults surveyed about the DiscoverREAD centers had positive things to say about the program.

“For example, 86% of caretakers felt more likely to read and write with their children after visiting a DiscoverREAD center. Ninety-two percent of caregivers surveyed learned something new to do with their children. Ninety-six percent believe that a DiscoverREAD center helps prepare children for school," she said.

The Neighborhood's Voice
MLF looks at neighborhood data around their branches, like socioeconomics, to make educated guesses about what programs are needed. To supplement the data, branch librarians also bring together groups of patrons, including youth, to gauge interest and steer programming in a direction that works for that community.

“We can use that data for some decisions, but just because the data says we ought to offer a program doesn't mean that people will participate in the program,”  Weinreich said. “That's where we need to get the input of the people we're trying to serve.”

The teen innovation centers are one example of tailoring programming based on community feedback.

The CLOUD901 teen space in the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library boasts its own high school robotics team, audio and video recording studios, and a hangout space to chill with friends.

Weinreich said CLOUD901 has been so successful that teen advisory councils at several other branches wanted their own centers closer to home.

MLF piloted new teen innovation centers at two branches, Whitehaven and Poplar-White Station, which launched in December 2019 and February 2020 respectively. Teens at Poplar-White Station requested an arts focus; Whitehaven kids wanted more gaming and tech. 

They were a hit until the pandemic brought things to a halt.

“Two very different branches, very different spaces and programming. You can imagine what happened in March 2020, so we don't have really good data yet. What we do know is the feedback is really, really good,” said Weinreich. 

“We had a few months of Whitehaven, and in after-school hours, the place was packed. So we know that they asked for it, they helped us design it, and they're using it now to the extent that's possible in COVID.”
Kids at the North Branch Library pick up grab-and-go craft kids. They'll learn to make their own electromagnet. (Memphis Library Foundation)

Check These Out This Summer:
Virtual Summer Camps | Ages 9-18

MPL has a number of virtual summer camps in June and July, including arts camp, STEM camp, robotics camp, a smart phone filmmaking camp, and a tween tech forensics camp. Registration ends June 1. 

Explore Memphis | All ages (12 and under can earn prizes)
Explore Memphis
is a program for readers of all ages. Participants can receive points for minutes spent reading, books finished, library programs attended, and making virtual or in-person visits to fun locations like museums or the zoo.

Registration is open now for individuals, families, and groups to take advantage of free book giveaways and join the challenge to read for at least 20 minutes every day to win prizes like scooters, tablets, and gift cards. It runs through July 31 and participants can join at any time.

For school-age children, the program helps combat the “summer slide,” which happens when students lose reading skills while away from school.

NEW Escape Rooms | Ages and themes vary
The library's virtual escape rooms have offered several themes since launching during the pandemic, including Star Wars, pirates, scary rooms for Halloween, and Greek mythology.

The virtual rooms were so popular, Weinreich said, that the outreach team decided to create in-person escape rooms with a twist: they’re portable.

“Now they're working on portable escape rooms that can be set up in outdoor environments, schools, at community events, but also in rooms inside the library once that's available. And they're really fun for families too, you don't know you're working on literacy, but you are! Everything about it is educational,” she said.

NEW Virtual Chess Club | Ages and skills vary
Another program that began in the pandemic is the brand new Long Live the King” chess club.

The first session was March 27, celebrating Women’s History Month. Professional chess player and Women’s International Master, 19-year-old Thalia Cervantes, was on hand to discuss the game, the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, and female chess players.

Virtual club meetings will continue weekly on Friday nights.

NEW Teen Innovation Centers | Ages 13-18
Teenage patrons can participate in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and math) activities tailored to their neighborhood needs at Teen Innovation Centers in select branches. 

Currently, there are centers at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, Whitehaven, and Poplar-White Station branches. MLF plans to open six more Teen Innovation Centers by the end of 2021 in the East Shelby, South, Cordova, Hollywood, Gaston Park, and North branches.

DiscoverREAD | Ages birth to 5 years and families
The littlest library patrons and their caregivers can participate in age-appropriate activities to build early literacy skills at DiscoverREAD centers. Kids and their families learn about language together through talking, reading, playing, singing, and writing. There are 12 branches with DiscoverREAD centers with two more opening soon. 

Family Tunes and Tales | Ages 3-8 and families
In the past, this program was a simple story time enhanced with live music from Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Now, they're going much bigger. Librarians and celebrity readers will be filmed for kids to watch with their families. Children will have the option to receive a free book and activity pack to take home and follow along while they watch the story and listen to the musical accompaniment. 
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Read more articles by Sarah Rushakoff.

Sarah Rushakoff was raised in Memphis and is a graduate of White Station High School and the University of Memphis. She is a longtime member of Our Own Voice Theatre Troupe and works professionally as a graphic designer, writer, and photographer.