In one of the Kansas City Public Library’s last in-person events before the pandemic, at its Plaza Branch in March 2020, author Beverly Tatum (right) talks with the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s Lia McIntosh about her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?
In the five years before life was altered by the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 142,000 people made their way to Kansas City Public Library auditoriums for a range of award-winning signature evening programming. Speakers ranged from former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to the five stars of Netflix’s infectious reality series Queer Eye. There were thoughtful, often lively civic forums and buoyant cultural presentations, all affirming the Library as a vital component in the life of the city.
And then, amid the COVID crisis and a city- and nationwide pause on such expansive gatherings, the auditoriums went dark.
The Library quickly pivoted to virtual presentations, keeping patrons and other online attendees engaged and informed. “We’ve kept in touch with some old friends and discovered new audiences,” says Steve Woolfolk, KCPL’s director of programming and marketing.
Still, he says, “We are ready to get people back into the Library to meet, and mingle, and to learn new things.”
The question is how soon. The Library had planned to go not only live but also in person early this fall. A summertime resurgence of the pandemic pushed the restart back to late fall – or likely later. The pandemic would dictate.
Woolfolk and Carrie Coogan, the Library’s deputy director for public affairs and community engagement, spent the summer monitoring upcoming book releases and reaching out to authors of some of the more interesting and timely titles. Their programs are the backbone of the signature programming series.
They also plotted the resumption of the Library’s most popular speaking series. Making a Great City presentations, ongoing since early 2018, feature prominent urban planners and local civic leaders in discussions of the “smart growth” of Kansas City. The Leavenworth-based U.S. Army Command and General Staff College has lent its lineup military historians for invariably well-attended programs since 2008.
The highly popular Off the Wall rooftop movie series resumed during the summer, moving from the fifth-floor terrace of the downtown Central Library to the top deck of the Library parking garage across the street.
“We’ll continue to offer a mix of nationally renowned speakers and attention to issues and subjects that impact our immediate community,” Coogan says, “including how we recover from the pandemic and how to address the digital divide and such local and state concerns as transportation and infrastructure, police governance, gun violence and education.”
In-person youth programming, while not under the umbrella of the Library’s signature events, also figured to gear back up in October, bringing kids back to Library venues for story times, Friday Night Family Fun entertainment and education presentations, and other activities.
After joining a COVID-induced, citywide shutdown in March 2020, KCPL resumed limited services in May and saw the pandemic wane sufficiently to reopen all of its physical locations this June. A return to group gatherings had to wait another few months.
Even before the pandemic, the Library was recording a number of its signature events and posting the videos to its YouTube channel for later viewing. That established an online presence that eased the pivot to an online-only programming format, with the first program rolling out in April 2020.
By the end of June 2021, the Library had staged 83 virtual events that drew more than 49,000 livestream and subsequent video views — an average of 593 per event. Reflecting the nation’s reckoning in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, there was a heavy emphasis on racial equity and injustice. That included an online forum, in partnership with the city’s board of parks and recreation commissioners, on the question of whether to remove the name of renowned but discriminative developer J.C. Nichols from a stretch of parkway and a Plaza-area memorial fountain.
The virtual events also featured a couple of Pulitzer Prize winners: Tamara Payne, who discussed her book The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X on the day it was released in October 2020; and Annette Gordon-Reed, who talked about her newly released On Juneteenth less than two weeks after President Biden signed legislation making Juneteenth a federal holiday. The June programming menu wrapped up with former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who joined Library Director John Herron in a frank conversation about the state of education in America today.
“We learned a lot,” Coogan says. “We also found that we were able to reach people who, pre-pandemic, couldn’t attend in-person programs. They were able to tune in from home or, because our programs remain on our website, watch when it was convenient.”
For that reason, even with a return to in-person, KCPL will continue to video record all programs and likely livestream at least some.
The Library’s signature programming, which was cited by the Institute for Museum and Library Services in awarding KCPL its prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service in 2008, remains a mainstay. A recent survey of nearly 5,700 Library patrons bears that out. Among those who’ve attended Library events both in person and online, 89% were satisfied or very satisfied with the virtual presentations and 97% with the in-person experience.
One respondent was nonetheless frank: “I’m tired of virtual events, especially after working virtually all day.”
Auditoriums are opening near you.
–Steve Wieberg, all photo courtesy Kansas City Public Library