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

Make equity about people, not stuff. Rethink library policy. More than 120 library staff have signed on to advance next steps in the COVID-19 Reimagining Youth Librarianship project, a crowdsourcing effort to create a framework for youth services during times of crisis.

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It’s been just a month since we started the COVID-19 Reimagining Youth Librarianship work. More than 120 library staff have registered so far to take part in a co-design process to develop a framework for the future of youth library services during times of crisis.

In our first co-design session via Zoom, participants shared the programs and services they are providing during the pandemic, how they know those services are successful, and ways in which they are leveraging community assets to support youth and families during this critical period. In our second gathering , staff discussed the “why” of the work they do with youth and families. These first co-design sessions served as an environmental scan that revealed how libraries across the U.S. are handling decision making and planning during this uncertain time. The following themes emerged.:


Make equity about people, not stuff

Equity is a primary issue among library staff. Those working with youth and families are well aware that not all community members receive or are able to participate in library services. Yet, a true understanding of what equitable services look like and how to work towards providing such services is severely lacking.

For many, a focus on equity is almost exclusively about device and technology access. However, for libraries to be truly equitable, staff must take a hard look at who is receiving services and how those needing libraries the most are served. “Equity means that everyone gets what they need to thrive no matter their identity or zip code,” according to Sandra Hughes-Hassell, professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “When we focus on equity, our ultimate goal is justice.”

In order to provide equitable services, library staff must focus on working with the community to discover their needs and solve systemic problems at the heart of inequity in communities and in libraries.


Mind your allies

Equitable services require library staff serving youth and families to have robust connections to community members, organizations, stakeholders, and decision-makers. Our conversations revealed that these connections are limited—often built as a result of convenience and legacy relationships. For example, looking only to school library staff and/or traditional partners that commonly bring youth to the library: teachers, scout leaders, and homeschooling parents. In a crisis, even these existing connections are easily frayed.

So it’s imperative that library staff purposefully work to connect to others with similar youth and family goals, which means in many cases moving beyond local schools. Relationships must be forged now with those who can rapidly come together when critical decisions and planning need to occur. These include mental health organizations, faith-based organizations, people and groups focused on serving non-dominant youth, including kids of color, non-English speakers, LGBTQIA, and those lacking basic resources or tech access. As one project participant advised: “Keep an open dialogue with community partners in whatever form works best for them in order to understand the realities of the communities they serve and collaborate to provide tailored support.”


Prioritize user need

While libraries have been physically closed, many library staff working with youth and families quickly virtualized existing services by moving existing face-to-face programming online. For example: live streaming storytimes, online book clubs; hosting gaming events on Discord servers, posting craft how-to videos, and facilitating teen advisory board meetings or teen hangouts via Zoom.

For the most part, there was little adaptation. Moreover, this process did not take into account the needs of youth and families.

In times of crisis, make it your goal to connect with the community to determine critical services, rather than simply shifting existing programs to an online format.

Read: "Reeinvisioning Libraries. There's a Project for That." 

Rethink policy

To be truly innovative, administrative approaches to service during times of crisis must change. Some project participants mentioned that administrators have not empowered them to rethink policies toward aligning library services with the needs of the community.

“Library structures [set up] a lot of bottlenecks,” said one library staff member. In our first session. "[There are] only certain people with authority to green light projects and they are overworked. [We are] not a flexible enough organization to restructure expertise.”

Similarly, because of existing technology and social media policies and/or fears that don’t allow staff to interact with youth and families via virtual tools, opportunities to connect with the community become extremely limited. We need to rethink library structures and systems to put into place those that are agile, adaptable, and open to change to meet the needs of youth and communities.


Plan for the next crisis

Working with youth and families requires rethinking professional development to help library staff successfully support services during crisis times. As decision making during a pandemic is new to everyone, it’s critical to understand what skills library staff will need for a future emergency. 

This includes skills in partnership building, needs assessment, connected learning, critical decision making, measurements of success, and design-based practices. Professional development organizations, pre-service library graduate programs, and in-house training departments must take these needs into account as they rethink their own models of professional development.


What’s next?

This environmental scan demonstrates that challenges faced in library services to youth and families haven't changed. Now these challenges have been compounded during a crisis, with libraries less able to retire their legacy approaches in response.

Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” For libraries, this means taking this opportunity to be bold and innovative, to leave the tried and true behind, and to swiftly change administration and policies to ensure that all youth have the services they need. This may require making difficult and radical, yet still sound, decisions. That’s what our kids and families deserve.

To assist library staff in these efforts, our next step for this project is to continue to work with participants to design tools and support systems that motivate those working in libraries to leverage community assets, respond to immediate community needs, work within library structures with agility and flexibility, and understand how to assess success.

If you haven’t yet joined this work, come collaborate with us. Get started by submitting this RSVP and consent form.

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

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