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SIS Alum, School Librarian Kelly Passek Uses Drone Service to Loan Students Books

Kelly Passek loads books into packages to be delivered to students via Wing drone delivery. Photo courtesy of Wing.

Imagine a middle school student looking out their front door to see a drone hovering above them, a long tether attached to a box extending from the small flying machine – when the box is released, the child opens it and inside is a library book from their middle school librarian. This small sci-fi adventure is playing out right now in the Christiansburg, Virginia area, after middle school librarian and SIS alum Kelly Passek (’11) brought the idea to fruition.

Passek’s family was one of the first in the United States to receive a residential drone delivery from Wing, and it wasn’t long before her librarian brain latched onto the possibilities such a service could offer her students. She had been contemplating a collaboration with the drone delivery company Wing since last October, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, along with closed schools and shuttered public libraries. Chistiansburg is just one of a few sites in the world where Wing, a sister company of Google, operates. The other Wing service areas are Helsiniki and two Australian cities.

“I was already thinking, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could send students library books via drone over the summer? The school libraries are closed over the summer, and our public libraries are still closed, so for our students, this may be the only way they have access to reading materials,” Passek said.

A week into running the new delivery method, Passek had already fielded several interviews from local and national news outlets about it. Which meant more advertising for students in the area to learn that they could request books from her – in fact, she had fulfilled 35 requests in the first six days.

Passek’s school district, Montgomery County Public Schools, created a bus system to provide all of its students with breakfast and lunch every weekday after schools closed down. Passek and other school librarians used the same buses to deliver library materials. Creating this distribution system made it that much easier for her to start using the drone delivery, as students already knew how to make an online request for books.

Photo courtesy of Wing

“Every morning I look at what the new requests are, and I have a colleague at the elementary school and one at the high school library that help me fill requests for books that I don’t have, and I fulfill those requests,” she said.

There are circumstances that can prevent delivery – such as rain or high winds – and there is a size limit on what can fit inside the delivery box. If a student orders a book that is too large for the box, Passek finds a “read alike” book as a substitute. As for the students on the receiving end, many are already familiar with how Wing delivers, so overall it hasn’t been too big of an adjustment for them, she said.

Being a librarian is a second career for Passek, who was first a biologist and academic before entering the SIS program.

“What really attracted me to the library is the idea that there is so much information that is available and as a librarian you are in a really unique position to teach students how to access that information and how to find quality information. We’re helping in terms of critical thinking skills and we’re providing students with the access to those resources, and the information literacy skills to know how to use those resources,” she said.

Passek has been in her current position at the middle school since 2013, and she said SIS classes taught her how to approach job hunting and thrive in whatever job she landed.

“One lesson that always stayed with me is, you shouldn’t necessarily spend time looking for the perfect job, you should make the job that you get perfect for you. I have stayed where I am for so long because I have the ability and the support needed to make the job what I want it to be – which is to do the best for our students,” she said.

She also credits the program with emphasizing networking as one of the best tools a librarian can have; if she hadn’t already reached out and networked with Wing last fall about using their service, it would have been a little more difficult to get the new delivery operation up and running.

“We were really encouraged as graduate students to network, to make connections and see how those can benefit our jobs. For me, it’s how can it benefit our students. Here we have a technology company that realizes how important school libraries are to students, and they’re willing to let us access that technology to help our students succeed,” Passek said.