Nationwide Effort Helps Administrators, Staff Innovate to Serve Communities
Mega Subramaniam, associate professor in the iSchool, was the lead faculty researcher on the team that developed a “field guide” to help public library administration and staff continue to serve their communities during a crisis such as the pandemic.
Libraries have long done double-duty in their communities during catastrophes, opening their doors to provide shelter, internet access, food and other emergency services. But, like the rest of us, today’s libraries had never before faced something as pervasive and enduring as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public libraries, forced to close their buildings, began launching virtual programming and grab-and-go and curbside book pick-up, but soon realized they needed to do more than offer their pre-pandemic services and find meaningful new ways to reach their communities.
Mega Subramaniam, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies, and Linda Braun, learning consultant at the creative learning strategies company LEO, have stepped in to develop a new Field Guide to assist library administration and staff through crises.
The pair held seven virtual sessions last summer with 137 library staff nationwide to learn how they are supporting their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic—a time that the United States also saw increased civic unrest and community activism resulting from the killings of Black people by police. The team’s work with library staff expanded to focus on library responses to both crises.
The Field Guide opens with a call for public library staff to adopt a “public servant mindset” and to connect with community members and groups, tapping into their expertise to help identify what programs and services are truly needed. By building trust with these “community connectors,” residents may feel more inclined to engage with the library’s services, the guide suggests.
“This [Field Guide] describes the essential tasks for libraries to execute to reach the communities that they have not served before—and serve the communities that need library services the most at this time,” Subramaniam said.
Additionally, due to the extended closures of libraries, some political leaders and decision makers have questioned the need for them and their staffs at all. The Field Guide offers ways to document how libraries’ programs, through a collaborative process with the community, can have an impact during crises, and at other times as well.
“Serving community during a crisis doesn’t require doing more, it requires doing different things,” Subramaniam said. “Consider using data to show your funders, decision makers, board members how you’re contributing to the community during crises, because if you can demonstrate the impact, no one is going to ask the question, ‘Why do we need you?’”
Along with her and Braun, the team included iSchool doctoral student S. Nisa Asgarali-Hoffman and Academic Advisor Keanu Jordan-Stovall and Christie Kodama Ph.D. ’19, assistant professor in the educational technology and literacy department at Towson University.
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