Several weeks before the coronavirus pandemic, Richard Cortright, co-leader of Darien Library’s 50/50 book group, discussed “The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson. The book is about a London doctor who uncovered the cause and source for one of the city’s worst cholera outbreaks in centuries.

“Great timing, that one,” said Cortright recently, whose book group is one of the many dozens of groups and activities normally held at the Darien Library that has now been meeting virtually.

By doing so, the library has provided the means to keep these meetings alive, Cortright said. “And members have responded enthusiastically.”

There are 10 to 12 regular attendees in the 50/50 group, and about half have attended since the library building closed, he said.

“I expect that that number will get closer to normal as people become comfortable with the technology,” said Cortright, who has been co-leading the group for two years.

The 50/50 book group alternates monthly between a fiction and nonfiction title.

It’s an “intimate group, so interaction without talking over each other is the norm,” Cortright said. “What I have witnessed in other forums has not really affected us: neglecting to mute yourself when scolding the dog, showing only your forehead on the video stream, but nothing that seriously dampens the flow or rigor of the discussion.”

During this period of social distancing, the Darien Library has continued to make as many of its services available online as possible, according to Amanda L. Goodman, publicity manager.

Virtual connections

The library’s Zoom book discussions are free and open to all, and according to many of those who lead and participate in them, have had a very strong virtual attendance.

“We’ve seen an increase in email subscribers, email open and click rates, social media interactions, and YouTube followers, so we’re connecting more online with the community than ever before,” Goodman said.

The number of people borrowing digitally has increased 38 percent and checkouts are up 63 percent in the last 30 days, compared to the same time period as last year, according to Goodman.

“Our Teen Services librarian, Mia Orobona, reports that there’s been barely a decrease in her checkouts to the prior year since so many people have gone digital,” she said.

She added that the library “strives to make this a memorable time and not just an anxious one” with activities such as how to play with and teach children, an exchange of recipes and crafts, and curating a weekly Spotify playlist, as well as livestreaming programs for all ages, from Stuffed Animal Picnic Storytime to virtual job hunting, financial wellness, and film discussions.

In fact, Goodman said that all the groups that formerly existed inside the library have transitioned in some fashion to a virtual meeting space.

Andrew Turriago, a sixth grade English teacher at Middlesex Middle School, runs a book group with the Teen Services librarian, Mia Orobona.

To date, he has given several virtual programs, one of which was the QuaranTeen Book Club.

“It was a blast. We had a great chat about our favorite books, as well as what series and titles we’ve been reading during the last month,” he said.

Orobona led it, and pulled titles and suggestions from the online catalog, so the students could check them out and start reading right away, according to Turriago.

Turriago also participated in the Business Book Club.

“While Zoom meetings, unfortunately, do not have the usual snacks, I still walked away with a lot to chew on,” he said.

At a recent meeting, he said members “listened to an excerpt from Ray Dalio of Bridgewater discussing what COVID-19 means for the global economy, debated what it might mean for things like universal health care and higher education, and heard from a wide variety of personal perspectives.”

A “new normal”

Carroll Stenson is the facilitator for the weekly short story discussion group.

“Our group has been meeting every Tuesday for the last twelve years at the library, so going virtual was quite a new experience for us,” Stenson said. “And for me, as the moderator, I must admit it was a bit daunting at first.”

She added, however, that the group is now up and running on the Zoom program, and seems to be getting used to it.

“We’ve ‘met’ for several consecutive weeks now and are back to discussing the story at hand in an easy and comfortable way,” she said.

While there are about 35 people who physically attended the group, with Zoom, there have been about 15 who attend virtually. They have even gotten some new people through word of mouth.

Stenson also teaches a short story discussion group at the New Canaan Library, the Edgehill senior living community in Stamford, and at a community in Florida. However, she’s only teaching virtually for the Darien Library.

“With the short story genre, unlike longer fiction where you’re given everything, you are allowed to wander with your imagination and develop the character yourself, and there is a lot for you to delve into and use your imagination for,” said Stenson, a Yale University graduate with a master’s degree in English literature.

At the end of each session, students come away with not only a better understanding of the story but a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s opinions,” she said.

In this “new normal,” she said she misses physically walking into the library.

“There is a different dynamic when you walk in and see your friends and chat for a bit,” Stenson said.

“There is a different dynamic and vibe, maybe it’s the human contact,” she said. “It’s more like a classroom now. Whereas when the class was held in person, it was more of a discussion circle.”

A “slam dunk”

Francis Janosco, the Darien Public Schools English department coordinator for grades 6 to 12, works with the Summer Reading Ambassador program, which was developed by teen librarians and the Middlesex Middle School English department.

In the past, the ambassadors read books from a list that the teen librarians create, and give book talks in the school auditorium.

“In the two years we had this in operation, we had bumped the numbers up of the kids,” Janosco said. “Over 275 kids participated last year.”

This year, the program will be conducted virtually.

“We selected 13 kids from sixth grade and seventh grade who applied to the program,” he said. “They are creating one- to two-minute videos of their book talks.”

At the end of the school year, they’ll post the video to the school and library websites, for everyone to watch.

“This will be a way for all the kids at the middle school to see their peers talk about the book,” Janosco said. “If your peer reads it, you may think, ‘Maybe I’ll give it a shot.’”

He continued: “This program is a slam dunk for us, for the library and for the students. We can help send kids to the town library for the summer program and they will be at a better level for reading and engagement for our reading program the following year.”

Timely business discussions

Virginia Grubbs, the library’s assistant head of reader services, helps run the Business Book Group (BBG), which selects books that feature management philosophies of top executives, work culture, and best leadership practices.

“We recently talked about the economy and post-corona virus,” Grubbs said. “Everyone was on one screen and a lot of people physically raised their hands or used the chat button.”

When they met virtually, instead of selecting a book, the group chose to feature a short video and follow it up with a discussion about the impact of the pandemic to capitalism.

“It was a great event with lots of thoughtful and insightful discussion,” she said, adding she hopes to bring it back once a month.

“My rock”

Darien resident Jane Schmidt, a library patron, said she tries to take advantage of many of the the virtual book and short story groups that are offered.

“The short story with Carroll is fabulous as usual. The group was cohesive and we didn’t seem to have any problem sharing our thoughts,” Schmidt said.

“As always, one picks up valuable insight as to what might be of specific interest,” she said, adding her “wish list” is getting longer and longer.

Schmidt continued: “The library has been “my rock in so many ways. I am forever indebted to all the friendly, dedicated staff who have contributed to making my life worthwhile.”

For more information on Darien Library’s virtual groups and discussions, visit darienlibrary.org.

sfox@darientimes.com