Sidewalk Stargazing @ Your Library with Guest Blogger Khelsea Rantanen

Photo of detail of moonBy Guest Blogger Khelsea Rantanen of the Northwest Regional Library System, Bay County Public Library

“Wow!” “Amazing!” “So cool!”

Nothing compares to the first time you see the Milky Way in all its glory or the full moon magnified by a telescope. Stargazing is a simple, fun, and engaging activity. At minimum, you need a safe place to stand and a night sky dark enough to see the moon or some stars. The young, the old, and everyone in between can stargaze. Telescopes or binoculars simply enhance the quality and quantity of what you see.

Implementing a stargazing program at Northwest Regional Library System (NWRLS) was one of the solutions that arose from completing the Sunshine State Library Leadership Institute. Public libraries all over the country facilitate STEM education opportunities to children and teenagers. Our library system provides opportunities to learn coding, DASH robots, 3D printing, and virtual reality among others. However, there were few chances to discover the beauty of the night skies. To engage single adults, seniors, and families – stargazing offered an intersection of hands-on learning, an inter-generational activity, and it lends itself from being a simple hobby to a complex, all-consuming passion.

During Summer 2018, to test public interest in stargazing, we scheduled a one-time star party called Sidewalk Stargazing @ Your Library for November 7, 2018. As many of you know from experience, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Mexico Beach, Florida on October 10, 2018, causing devastation throughout the Florida Panhandle. Our Facebook event garnered more than 200 interested notices.

Throughout the summer, while I studied more about stargazing in libraries, I kept reading about lending telescopes. Cornerstones of Science, a nonprofit in the Upper Northeast that works with public libraries to facilitate informal science education through public libraries, has the Cornerstones’ STAR (Sharing Telescopes and Astronomical Resources) Program to foster interest in astronomy by getting quality telescopes into the hands of the public. A very popular telescope, the Orion 4.5” Star Blast is modified by a large group of volunteers to make them friendly to the public. After the storm, Bay County Public Library was closed to the public for a short time as the librarians and staff were reallocated to recovery efforts. Amid these efforts, I received word about the looming deadline for PLAN’s Innovation Projects program. At some point, I asked my administration if I could submit an application for purchasing these telescopes to kick off the stargazing program, which I had been trying to lift off prior to the storm.

Since I had researched and planned to eventually incorporate lending telescopes into the stargazing program, I had all of the necessary information. I submitted the application and waited.

To my great surprise, among all the great applications, my request was funded. It felt very good. We received funding to purchase books and three telescopes, two for circulation and one library programs. I owe thanks to the comprehensive grant writing class I took during my graduate studies at Florida State University with Dr. Linda Swaine. Also, I owe a debt of gratitude to Heather Ogilvie for taking the time to listen to my rambling about the project and reading my drafts while she was writing hers, too. Without the encouragement of Robin Shader and Lynn Elliott, my library director and department head respectively, I would never have even started this program.

Lending more than books has already taken place in my library system. Before telescopes, NWRLS already lent maker kits, cake pans, ukuleles, and dulcimers. Our staff was familiar with cataloging strange new items and knew what questions to ask in regard to storage, the method of lending, changing policies, and generalities. After a bevy of meetings with administration, technical services, circulation, and reference departments, we determined that we would allow the telescopes to be borrowed like any regular item for three weeks with the opportunity of two renewals. Many public libraries lend their telescopes for a week to encourage more circulation; however, we differed in order to keep our lending policies uniform. Since the telescopes are more expensive than the average book, we did follow the general practice of requiring an adult to check out the telescope. In addition, we require the borrower to sign a waiver of claims and a borrowing agreement describing correct use. Some libraries require patrons to agree to transporting the telescope in a car; however, our talks led to the decision that implementing a car-only transportation requirement limited those who borrowed the telescopes. Finally, we decided to test the circulating procedures for a short period only from Bay County Public Library before allowing circulation throughout the system.

As of now, we are still working out the kinks to lending the telescopes. We expect by June to allow our courier to ferry the two telescopes. The first Sidewalk Stargazing @ Your Library was held on March 24th with a total attendance of nine people. We have scheduled more throughout the summer in conjunction with a Universe of Stories, the space-themed summer reading program. Two stargazing parties will be held in Gulf and Liberty counties to encourage and highlight stargazing among the smaller branches where there is less light pollution than in Panama City.

In the beginning, I expect the stargazing program to be modest, but with time it will grow in popularity. I hope it sparks curiosity about space exploration and positively bonds those who stargaze together.

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