Library Spotlight: Senior Programs at Westerville Public Library

Erin M. Schadt /

Every community is unique, which of course means that each library is unique. Take, for example, Westerville Public Library in Westerville, Ohio. Westerville is a city of about 37,000, situated fewer than 20 miles north of Columbus, and just a stone's throw from the Hoover Dam … okay, not the Hoover Dam, but a Hoover Dam that's scenic and still pretty impressive (holds in 20.8 billion gallons of water!). But back to the library …

One of the unique aspects at this library is their robust Outreach Department. A service the department provides is called Library Link in which a full-time member of the Outreach team goes out to deliver and pick up materials from all 27 schools in their district every day. Another remarkable part of the Westerville Public Library Outreach Department is their many services and programs for senior/older adults, from e-reader training to games to a pen-pal program with elementary school students.

We caught up with Marie Corbitt, Outreach Program Librarian (and second from left in photo), to find out more about this aspect of Westerville Public Library in particular.

WebJunction: Tell me a little about Westerville Public Library and your role as Outreach Program Librarian.

Marie Corbitt: The Westerville Public Library is a School District Library, so we serve different counties and more than just Westerville city itself. We serve a community of approximately 90,000 people. We have about 107 staff members. Our library prides itself on being very responsive to customer requests. We try really hard not to say no and try something out if customers ask about it. For example, we put microwaves in our lobby for customers to use and recently started checking out mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. Those were because of customer requests, and they are definitely used!  

As an Outreach Program Librarian, I do some "normal" outreach duties, such as going out on deliveries and pulling materials for our customers. But I also go out and do programs at senior living facilities and senior centers. These programs include Remember When Story Times, computer classes, individual technology help, games, discussion groups and more. Another part of my role is to help out with large community programs, such as author visits. I love that no day is ever the same and I get to leave the building and meet many people.

WJ: How does your library define senior?

MC: At our library, a senior is anyone over the age of 60. But as far as our Outreach services, we will deliver to anyone who lives in one of the senior facilities we deliver to on a monthly basis. We will also deliver to anyone recovering from surgery, people who are not a senior but have some type of disability that prevents them from getting to the library on their own, as well as caregivers.

WJ: Lots of communities have a thriving senior community, but not all libraries have so many services to that community, why is Westerville different?

MC: Like I mentioned earlier, I think our library is really great at listening to the needs and wants of the community. Our Outreach customers were asking for more programs, we saw opportunity, we spoke to the Director and Library Board, and they agreed that we should add more programs and services. Our senior community is continuing to grow, like it is in many other library service areas, and it is important to make sure that community is heard and represented in programming. I believe it is our responsibility to bring services and programs that we would offer inside the library outside to the people who cannot make it in, to the best of our ability.

WJ: Of the great list of programs currently offered for seniors, which programs are the most popular?

MC: I would say by far the Remember When Story Times are my most popular and that is the program I do most often. I do Remember When Story Times at eight different senior facilities every month. I choose one theme for each month and do the same story time at each facility. It's become pretty popular and it's really fun! These story times are made up of short stories, mostly from Reminisce Magazine, some songs, pictures, props and activities.

We do also offer computer classes. These are basic computer classes, including Computer Basics, Internet Essentials and Social Media for beginners. For these classes, we provide training laptops and portable Wi-Fi. We try to limit the class size to six since many of attendees need extra one-on-one assistance.

Other technology programs, such as one-on-one e-reader (or other technology) training and the Gadget Gallery aren't quite as popular. I'm still trying to figure out how to get the word out about these and get people excited about it. I think a lot of people are still intimidated by technology and some just try to avoid it. One-on-one help is usually for people who get a new gadget for some kind of holiday and need help figuring out how to use it. We are happy to help!

Games seem to be popular at a few facilities, but I'm still waiting for them to catch on at others. My most popular games so far have been Pictionary and Name That Tune. Name That Tune is especially popular because so many people love music and remember songs. I've done a Broadway theme, 30s, 40s and 50s theme, and popular TV show theme songs. They loved the theme songs! Pictionary can be really fun too, but some people get intimidated by drawing in front of others. I usually bring another co-worker along with me so we have at least one "drawer" per team and the others can at least guess. We've had some great laughs at these programs! I also just created an interactive Jeopardy game that I'm about to test run at the end of this month. I'm excited!

Leaping Letters is a letter writing program I began about four years ago. It is a letter writing program between seniors and an elementary school class. It is a little challenging to get as many seniors to participate as there are children in the class, so most seniors have to write to two to three children each. But they are happy to do that. It is really great to see the bond they form through letters and to keep letter writing alive with these children. Last year, we were able to bring them all together to meet. I'm hoping to find more senior participants for next school year. It's a really rewarding program.

WJ: How did so much programming and services come about? Where did you get your ideas?

MC: I began volunteering for the Outreach Department when I was earning my MLIS through Kent State University (OH). After about a year, an Outreach Associate position opened up, which I applied for and I was lucky enough to get hired! I was still earning my degree, and during that time, we decided to add a few programs for our Outreach customers, such as computer classes and games.

As I got closer to finishing my degree, I realized that Outreach was the only department in the library that did not have a librarian position and I was pretty much doing what the librarians were doing in other large departments. Plus, once we started doing some programming, we realized that our customers were eager for more. There are so many promising opportunities and ideas for more programs, especially since the older adult population continues to grow and more senior facilities are being built.

So, I wrote up a proposal to take to the board of the library, stating why there should be an Outreach Program Librarian position. Luckily, they agreed and the position was created! Since then, I have added more programs and I think I could add even more. So I think there are two main reasons why we have so many programs and services to the community. First, because we fought for it. And second, because the library listened to us and our customers.

I get most of my ideas from other librarians and teachers. I heard about senior story times through a conference and thought it was a great idea. That’s also how I heard about a letter writing program. I also do internet searches and find things that teachers do. For my Remember When Story Times, I try to find interactive activities to do, especially for my lower functioning or dementia groups.

Pinterest comes in really handy for this. I’ve found some great ideas through that, including Popsicle stick puzzles. One month my theme was art appreciation and I printed pictures of some famous pieces of art, like the Mona Lisa. I then cut them into strips, glued them to Popsicle sticks, and voila! Simple puzzles for seniors! That was a Pinterest find. Pinterest is a great resource to find ideas like this.

WJ: Have you tried anything that didn't quite work or wasn’t as successful as you would have hoped? If so, how did you adjust or what did you learn from the experience?

MC: So we used to offer something called a "Technology Petting Zoo." The idea is that we will bring out various e-readers and show them to customers, let them play with them and help them decide if they would like to own one and which one would be best for them. Well, we went to the first facility that asked for this and people showed up asking where the animals were. They thought it was an actual petting zoo and that we would bring in animals! So we then changed the name to "Gadget Gallery." Choosing the right name is definitely something I learned.

Another program I started up at the request of an Activities Director, is something I now call iPals. It is a program for people in a memory care unit where we use iPads and apps to stimulate them and get them to interact. I have not really done many programs specifically for memory care, so I wasn't sure what to expect. I never get many people, and unfortunately success is often measured by attendance. But the people who do attend get a lot out of it and I think it really makes a difference in their lives. So for me, it was changing my thinking that quality is sometimes more important than quantity.

WJ: Any advice to libraries looking to expand their services & programs to seniors?

MC: One of the most important things when you are trying to expand programs to seniors is working with the Activities Directors at the facilities. If you can get them on your side and make them realize that you are there to help them, they are great advocates for you to their residents. I would also recommend going to conferences and talking with other Outreach workers as often as possible. It is a great way to network and see what other programs are being offered.

WJ: Anything else you'd like to add?

MC: I think the three most important things when it comes to doing Outreach programs are simplicity, patience and compassion. Keeping things simple, especially when relating to technology, is super important, otherwise they can get overloaded and overwhelmed. Patience is also important because you will repeat yourself over and over and over. Be prepared for that. And compassion is important for all people, but especially seniors. They may be scared or worried to ask a question or participate in a program. Be encouraging and find out what's going on, let them talk and know you care.

Also, I could not do what I do without my wonderful coworkers. We are all very dedicated to our jobs and our patrons and to creating the best programs and services possible. So another piece of advice for fellow libraries who want to expand Outreach is to get dedicated, compassionate and patient people who will love what they do — like the people I'm lucky enough to call my coworkers.


All photos courtesy of Westerville Public Library.