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Wake up, Libraries: Curbside Pickup is NOT the Answer | Reimagining Libraries

Identifying community needs is crucial in a crisis. Participants proposed some recommendations in this next stage of the COVID-19 Reimagining Youth Librarianship project.

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COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in March, and libraries closed their buildings within a few weeks of the outbreak. To maintain service to the community, they pivoted to virtual. Now, four months into this pandemic, libraries have partially reopened buildings, primarily focusing service on low-hanging fruit by reformatting traditional offerings.

These reformatted services include providing curbside pick-ups and grab-and-go services, boosting Wi-Fi access, virtualizing some existing services (such as story time), and leveraging comfortable partnerships (such as those with schools).

Along with the pandemic, the country continues to grapple with systemic racism.

We have to ask, are these reformatted services what youth and families need right now? Through our work with more than 150 library staff participating in the COVID-19 Reimagining Youth Librarianship project, we found that the answer is a resounding “no.” We are aware that we are making a generalization based on our interaction with the 150 library staff that are directly working with us. We acknowledge that there are indeed public library staff who have been working tirelessly to determine and fulfill the exacerbated needs of their communities. If you believe your work does not fit our generalization and would like to share your experiences and knowledge with us, please contact us (mmsubram@umd.edu, lbraun@leonline.com).

Read: COVID-19 Is an Opportunity to Rethink Youth Librarianship | Reimagining Libraries

Identifying evolving community needs is crucial in a crisis and library staff must recognize this. Through the project, we learned that participants lack:

  1. Knowledge of how to connect with resources (including people, organizations, published materials, and datasets) that help them learn about the needs of their communities
  2. Skills in how to determine the needs of their communities by triangulating the information that they receive from different sources
  3. Awareness that needs change over time

Over the past month, as a part of our co-design process, we explored the question: What are the exacerbated challenges that youth and families face during crises such as those we are now experiencing? Library staff working with us interviewed community connectors around the United States. Participants included youth activists, teen and family advocates, a LQBTQ community housing coordinator, university and state community engagement personnel, local business executives, a nutrition educator, a physician, a councilwoman, and nonprofit managers. Through these conversations, some critical challenges to communities emerged.

These are listed below in no specific order. Related questions should be addressed in order for libraries to be truly relevant to their communities during times of emergency.

Growing insecurities. Many youth and families, in particular minoritized families, are under stress and face insecurities about finances, employment, schooling, housing, health, racism, and food and nutrition. As one staff notes, “Having [an] internet connection is an issue, …but having food, clothing and employed parents are even bigger issues."

How can public libraries leverage community assets to understand crisis-specific insecurities and design community-based solutions with and for youth and families?

Supporting formal (online or hybrid) learning. We are fortunate to live in an age when distance learning is possible. Yet distance learning requires teacher and family support. “[P]arents may be illiterate, do not speak English, or have to work outside the home and are not available during school-day hours,” says Gloria Blackwell, director of community engagement at the University of Maryland. Similarly, even if a device is provided by a school, access may be limited because the whole family needs to use that one device.

Given the evolving nature of K12 learning, do public library staff have the skills and connections to support formal learning? How do library staff harness connected learning programs and services to support student learning outcomes?

Making the invisible visible. As public library staff work to provide services during the pandemic, it’s easy to focus on the needs of those are most vocal and traditional library users. “If I have not established a relationship with the people in the community,” says Jennifer Johnson, Teen Forum manager at the Martin Library in York, PA. “Then I shouldn't be surprised if people do not turn to the library during a time of crisis.”

How do libraries connect with community assets to seek out those who have no voice and no advocates, such as people who are homeless, struggling with mental health conditions, or lacking food, and discover what community organizations (including libraries) can do for them?

Read: "Retire Those Legacy Approaches. It’s Time to Be Bold and Innovative. | Reimagining Libraries"

Strategic capacity building. Collective impact benefits all communities. A strategic effort among community partners can coordinate resources and leverage the strengths and goals of participating organizations. Public libraries often expect partners to come to them or they go to partners and “sell” what the library can do for them. “I really like the idea about knowing your partners rather than making them learn about you,” says Juan Rubio, digital media and learning program manager at Seattle Public Library.

In order to successfully support youth and families during times of crisis, how can library administrators and staff strategize and plan with their communities not as a way to “sell” library services but as a way to make sure youth and families have what they need to survive and succeed? How can we move from transactional relationships to partnerships that are symbiotic?

Supporting youth employment. Over the past decade, many communities have worked to provide employment opportunities to youth. The pandemic creates challenges as youth may find it difficult to find jobs that they can perform completely online. Jobs that require a physical presence (cashier, waiter, etc.) present a high COVID-19 risk. Resources for employment range from resume writing support to social-emotional development that empowers youth to land a job and then perform well on the job—even when it’s virtual.

What are the services youth in your community need to gain employment and develop future job skills, and how can the library help fill those needs?

Encouraging activism. Young people want to help overcome racial injustice, police brutality, domestic violence, and oppression.

Given that library staff are predominantly white and not diverse, how do these staff work with minoritized youth to assure they are able to provide wide-ranging support towards reducing injustice and systemic racism?

Accessing accurate health information. Pervasive misinformation regarding health has substantial consequences for minoritized and low-income youth. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress, highlights the librarian’s role in a recent interview. “[P]eople are wondering, where's this information coming from? Who's generating it? And so that's what librarians are trained to do, to look at how the information is being produced and who's producing it.”

So, how can libraries support just-in-time health information needs? What models of information delivery can libraries employ to get pertinent information to youth and who can serve as information intermediaries?

Read: "Reenvisioning Libraries. There's a Project for That. | From the Editor"

What’s next?

COVID-19 cases are soaring in the United States, and racial tensions are acute. The above challenges are ongoing—youth and their families are struggling with decisions about schooling, housing, employment, child care, health, racism, and more. In such moments, we implore the library community to:

  1. Shift focus from the needs of the library to the needs of the community.
  2. Engage community partners proactively to learn about community expertise, mutual goals, and opportunities to work together to support youth and families, rather than expect community partners to learn about the library and its offerings.
  3. Shift emphasis from physical access to the library and technology (i.e. curbside pick-ups, summer reading programs) and instead focus on how to establish relationships with the community irrespective of the library physical space.

If library staff do not step up to help youth and families with these critical needs, their significance to the community will surely be lost. This is a crossroads moment: Library administrators must revise policies and structures to enable and empower staff to be agile and flexible.

Our design work is not yet done. In the weeks to come, we will continue to work with library staff to engage in a process of taking what they’ve learned about their community and transition that into responsible and responsive actions for serving youth and families during crisis times. Stay tuned.


Dr. Mega Subramaniam is an associate professor at the College of Information Studies, University of Maryland. Linda W. Braun is a learning consultant for LEO.

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