Public Programs Go Virtual

Newberry Public Programs have always been free and open to the public, drawing curious members of the community to the library. For the last few months, COVID-19 has challenged our ability to safely welcome the community to our home at 60 West Walton. To continue engaging audiences, we’ve built a virtual programming plan from the ground up.

“We didn’t have the infrastructure in place to do this, but we did the research and adapted quickly with the help of new technology,” says Elizabeth Cummings, Manager of Public Programs, about her team’s quick pivot to virtual programming.

In April, less than a month after the library’s physical closure, she and her team launched the Newberry’s first ever Virtual Public Program: “Juliette Kinzie and Chicago before the Fire.” Author and professor Ann Durkin Keating joined fellow historian and former Newberry Vice President for Research and Academic Programs Brad Hunt to discuss the life and legacy of Juliette Kinzie, one of Chicago’s forgotten female founders. Two hundred and fifty attendees joined Keating and Hunt for the livestream of the program. Seven hundred more later watched the recording on YouTube. These combined numbers dwarf attendance stats for programs held at the Newberry. And feedback from participants was overwhelmingly positive:

“This was a wonderful adjustment to the crisis.”

“Thank you for making me feel ‘normal’ for part of my day!”

“I’m excited to see the next program.”

Since April, the Newberry has held ten public programs virtually, including adaptations of already-planned events, like the Kinzie discussion, and born-virtual programs, such as the interactive Newberry Library Trivia Night held on June 30. Most recently, speakers hopped on their virtual soapboxes for Bughouse 2020, a digital reimagining of the annual Bughouse Square Debates, normally held across the street from the library in Washington Square Park. (Watch Bughouse 2020.)

“The goal of all our public programs is to bring people into conversation with our collection, and with each other,” says President Daniel Greene. “Keeping audiences engaged during this unusual time is not only vital for the continued health of the Newberry as an institution, but also an important component of bringing history to life for our community.”

Attendance at virtual public programs has consistently matched or exceeded that of in-person programming. Plus, these programs have brought together audiences from further afield than ever before. For the May 20 program “Page vs Stage: Inside Shakespeare’s First Folio,” volunteers living less than a block from 60 West Walton joined viewers from Australia, Ireland, and Singapore. (Watch Page vs. Stage.)

But even for Chicagoland viewers, virtual public programs have offered newfound accessibility:

“I live in Joliet and find it challenging to attend programs in the city. I really need virtual programs with educational and entertainment content. Thanks.”

“Thank you so very much for doing these virtual talks. I'm disabled and can't get to the Newberry for your in-person talks. I keep seeing great lectures that you have and am so interested in them but cannot attend. This gives me the opportunity to do so again, thank you.”

Audience surveys found that 75% of virtual program attendees had not attended Newberry programs regularly in the past, or even at all. To keep serving these audiences, Cummings and her team plan to continue virtual and “hybrid” programming even after the pandemic ends. In fact, the Newberry just received a grant from the Free For All Fund of the Chicago Community Trust to further invest in the technology and infrastructure required for virtual programs.

“Going virtual has made participating in our programs more accessible to working parents, people from out-of-state, and many others. It’s also made our programs weather-resistant,” she says, pointing out an issue all too familiar to Chicagoans.

It’s thanks to the support of donors like you that we’ve been able to make this shift to virtual programming and look toward a bright future of continued innovation and engagement. The Public Programs team thanks you.

Explore our upcoming programs or browse our library of past virtual public programs.

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Summer 2020. In this newsletter the Newberry shares with its donors exciting stories of the success and innovation made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.