Maxine Bleiweis joined us on Thursday, July 2 for a big-picture conversation. Within the context of both a global pandemic and historic protests in favor of racial justice, libraries are in a position to think deeply about how we’d like to emerge from this ground-altering period of time.
As she began her presentation, Bleiweis encouraged us to step back to observe this moment from a wider lens. “Libraries have made it through difficult times before. We are more important than ever,” she said, noting that libraries have survived the Great Depression, 9/11, and other crises. We are not operating within business as usual; this is a time to implement changes. And this pandemic can be an accelerant to get things done that have been in the wish list.
Using the philosophy of “looking for the library in everything,” Bleiweis centered her presentation on four themes: community and civic leadership, rethinking spaces, rethinking technology and service, and rethinking staffing. Let’s take each subtopic one by one.
Community and Civic Leadership
Bleiweis reminds us that your library is relevant to everyone in your community. She encourages library staff to reach out to key people to see what’s on their mind. Listen hard and make suggestions as to what sorts of collaborative efforts may be helpful. In particular, Bleiweis recommends thinking of economic solutions that may be helpful at this time, from hosting online meetings connecting entrepreneurs to acting as a hub that connects local businesses to the community.
Importantly, libraries have a mandate to work with communities to achieve racial justice. We have resources to share, and (hopefully) resources to buy. Community-wide reads are a great way to open dialog, and finding skilled facilitators is key for these conversations.
Covid-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future. We must reconfigure our spaces to accommodate our new physically distant reality. Let’s start by seeing your space with only what’s load bearing. Beginning from a blank page will allow you to create a library space that supports community health.
Safety is, of course, paramount. Much of the guidance on reducing community spread includes ensuring good ventilation. So, start outside your building. It’s safer. Put up banners, put up tents. Make sure your wifi extends as far as you need it. Rethink your programming to make use of the outdoors. Outdoor movie nights offer one potential area for building community safely.
Indoors and out, service points offer plenty of opportunity to interact with our community to help them embrace new modes of engaging. Place staff at the library’s entrance, near places of “confusion”, and near places that have new ways of operating. It’s important to minimize movement of library users so as to help reduce contact between community members. Other space considerations include setting up self-service points wherever possible, introducing flexible furnishing, and figure out how to offer computer use at a distance (i.e. provide mobile devices not fixed computers).
As you make these alterations, be sure to reach out to your community. Bleiweis suggests sharing drafts of communication with folks outside the organization so as to set the right tone. Helpful communication includes assurances of what community members will find when they return to the library (clean spaces, temperature checks for staff, mandatory face coverings), what you expect from them, changes made to library spaces, how interactions with library staff will proceed, and any changes to library services.
Rethinking Technology and Service
Bleiweis suggests finding ways to use technology to enhance our services even while we aren’t able to work face-to-face with library patrons. Potential routes include ensuring WiFi access throughout the building (and as far as possible outdoors), making use of RFID tags, installing software that allows library staff to take over screens while providing education, and making sure that library websites and check-out systems are easy to use.
The presenter also suggests implementing as much touchless contact as possible. Bleiweis notes the many technical options for doing so, from using laser pointers for communication to providing remote printing services. Going cash-free helps keep germs away, as do services like locker pickup stations, near field technology for cards and materials. Even the bathroom provides an opportunity for upgrades; many restrooms now offer touch-free water activation, soap dispensers, and a hand dryer all in one station.
Engaging with our communities will continue to require use of technology. We can view social technology as a way to meet people where they are, whether through Zoom, Facebook Live, or Instagram TV. Programming ideas include taking your users through the stacks on a virtual basis, pairing programming with library resources. Think cooking lessons, crafting demos, and poetry readings. Bleiweis also notes that this would be an ideal time to reconsider our classification systems, given the suspect ideologies of Melvil Dewey.
Rethinking Staffing Practices
Bleiweis anticipates staff vacancies due to retirement and, perhaps, a reluctance to return to work during a pandemic. This opens up opportunities for rethinking hiring, where possible. (Be sure to adhere to union rules.) Organization charts for most libraries have not changed for decades. This is a time to rethink that. Bleiweis encourages us to think about the opportunities that exist, and then determine who you’d like to hire: what gaps exist now, in the pandemic? What skills lend themselves to this moment? Who is best positioned to fulfill these needs? Answers could lie in a need to enhance cleaning crews, hire performers, bring on a community liaison, or find technical people to help enhance our virtual environments.
Bleiweis suggests seeking out and hiring folks with the characteristics helpful to challenging times: flexibility; ability and eagerness to learn; empathy; desire to try, fail, and try again; and comfort in a digital setting are all winning attributes during this time. Crucially, this is the time to consider what the MLS means in terms of creating barriers for people of color in the library industry. What can we do to build and sustain and nurture diverse teams? What can we do to bring on folks who may not have the MLS and who are nevertheless qualified to provide excellent service to our communities?
We must acknowledge that our community members are likely suffering hardships. Empathy is critical. We can help establish a safe space by practicing new scenarios: how are we going to deal with folks who are grieving? What kinds of dispensations can we allow for things like overdue or lost books? If your library has not yet gone fine free, this is the time. People are going to manifest all sorts of different fears; be kind and patient and loving, and encourage your staff to do the same.
Existing staff members are not immune to mourning, grieving, and fear. We’re facing a number of challenges: difficult situations that existed before Covid might get worse and staff may be inclined to be judgmental of one another. Set up structures to support them. Create a healthy environment by taking time for walking, stretching, and meditation. Fill your vending machine with healthy snacks. Act on toxic work situations; situations that are left unattended are likely to get worse.
Each of us can try to focus on navigating these tricky situations calmly and with grace. Remember: nothing is written in stone. See if you can be guided by cataclysmic events rather than reacting to them. Adopt a mindset that is focused on a continuous improvement frame. Remember that good things can come out of this time, too. Consider that collaboration is our secret weapon. Seek out positivity to get you through this. Above all else, return to the question, “Why do libraries exist?” Let it be your guiding star.