virtually speaking

Community hubs keep their audiences engaged online
By Rebecca Berfanger

History lessons, art projects, movie nights, story time for the kiddos and book club meetings for adults: These are all events that, until early 2020, would typically take place in person at local museums, libraries and city parks. You know the story: In March 2020, venues closed to the public in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and event organizers quickly pivoted to virtual events.

Among the closed venues to continue offering programming to residents of Johnson County and Indy’s south side were the Greenwood Public Library, Johnson County Public Library, the Johnson County Museum of History in Franklin and Garfield Park Art Center in Indianapolis.

And although all of these community hubs have received socially distanced, masked visitors over the past year, they have taken their critical community roles online. Now these venues are still active, even for their patrons who are opting to stay at home.

Reaching new audiences
“We want to offer virtual programming to let people know we’re still here and still engaged and still providing services,” says Elyssa Everling, a librarian at the Trafalgar Branch of Johnson County Public Library. “I know a lot of people are ‘Zoomed out,’ but these are fun programs. They’re not work meetings, and they’re not school.”

In some cases, they’ve even reached a broader audience.

The Garfield Park Art Center, for instance, would usually have exhibit receptions on the first Friday of every month. However, since last March they have been hosting virtual opening receptions instead of live events. Those occasions have also continued to include participation from local musicians by offering playlists.

“Even in lockdown, you did see people turning toward the arts for entertainment,” says Garfield Park Arts Center manager Kavita Mahoney. “People were picking up more creative opportunities, whether that was writing at home, reflective journaling or painting. People were turning toward the arts to cope, to improve their mental health.

“We also saw folks turning to outdoor green spaces more. We saw a need and an obligation to provide opportunities. We pivoted really quickly and asked, ‘How can we [continue to] make arts accessible for everybody?’”

Those virtual receptions have even included attendees from around the Midwest and as far as Texas, California and New York, possibly friends and family of the artists who normally wouldn’t be able to travel to attend an in-person event in Indianapolis, Mahoney says.

In addition, Garfield Park continues to host a monthly vintage movie night, including some outdoor screenings last summer, as well as an ongoing virtual program. On March 20, there will be screenings of rare Boris Karloff films, featuring historian and film expert Eric Grayson as host, as well as special guest Sara Karloff, Boris’ daughter. On April 24, the theme is silent film stars’ radio careers, featuring Grayson with Rob Farr, a film historian and professor at George Mason University.

Those guest speakers, Mahoney notes, would likely not have traveled to Indiana if those were live screenings.

Web of history
The Johnson County Museum of History has also virtually continued its mission, that is, to share the area’s history, something it has done since the early 1930s. “We were closed to the public from March 16 to about June 16 [in 2020]. Emily Spuhler [curator] and myself were here at the museum,” says Director David Pfeiffer. “While closed, we tried to bring the museum to them.”

To accomplish this, they filmed tours of the museum’s exhibits in short segments, including the temporary exhibit about the Franklin Wonder Five, a basketball team from 1920, plus exhibits about the Civil War and local transportation. Eventually, they expanded their content to include answering questions, and Spuhler and Pfeiffer would choose their favorite artifacts to share.

Another side effect of people staying at home has been “an uptick in research requests,” received via Facebook, email and phone calls, Pfeiffer says, likely because they’re at home more and thinking about their own family histories. “I think people have been going a little stir crazy.”

The family that makes together …
For families looking to create together at home, there have been several ongoing opportunities that will continue at least into the spring and possibly beyond.

Garfield Park’s free “Arts for All” program, usually offered in person on Saturdays, has not only offered kits for families to continue creating, but its website offers nearly two dozen art projects that can be done with household items, found at

Similarly, Greenwood Public Library and Johnson County Public Library, which both typically offer several types of crafting opportunities in person every month, have also been offering kits and virtual instructions for patrons.

This spring, Greenwood Public Library will be virtually teaching patrons about hummingbirds, including how to make feeders, on March 24 and May 21, followed by instructions on how to capture relevant data as part of the Audubon Society – Hummingbirds At Home program.

JCPL will also offer virtual programming about local flora and fauna with Backyard Observer Training with Indiana Phenology on April 8 and 10, in addition to other arts-based programming.
Both libraries also offer craft projects for kids that relate to their virtual story hours, via Zoom.

“As quarantine continued and it was still not safe to have groups in the building, we started to lean more into Zoom to interact with patrons,” says Amy Dalton, librarian at the JCPL’s White River Branch. “When we opened back up to doing curbside delivery, that gave us the ability to get materials to people before a Zoom call. It’s really fun to do crafts with adults. Then when we finish, we’ll say, ‘If you really like this craft, we have 50 books on it.’ It’s also fun because people get to talk to each other and do it together.”

As for young children, “kids who had in-person preschool, those may be the last to reopen. If parents and kids are at home anyway during the day, we’re able to provide the story times with an activity, and we can get the books to them ahead of time,” Dalton says. She adds some of their most popular programs have been yoga and virtual stress relief programs for kids and teenagers.

Story times and other programming are also important to keep connected to patrons, says GPL reference librarian Emily Ellis. “As far as online programming, we’ve posted over 200 videos over the course of 2020,” she says. Through those videos and social media, the GPL has “provided a place for kids to see friendly faces, and we built relationships with people.”

Librarians are also considering their older patrons. JCPL has continued offering book clubs and trivia events geared toward adults, including its live podcast recordings. Earlier this year, it hosted a Zoom call while Dalton discussed the Netflix show, “Bridgerton.” The library has released several episodes of its podcast, “Back Stories.”

GPL offered a virtual cooking program that discussed different spices and continued its adult book clubs and other informational programming for adults.

Information about JCPL’s virtual events is available on its website, GPL’s virtual events are available at

Although the warmer months ahead might yield more opportunities for socially distanced gatherings, many anticipate the connections will continue virtually, at least for the immediate future.

“We’ve really stretched our comfort zones,” Ellis says. “We’re learning this isn’t going to go away. We will continue offering virtual programs. All of my staff are ready to see people again, but in the meantime, we’re trying to offer what we can to bring something good into their lives.”