Stepping Up at Scale | Editorial

When I look at the state of the nation, my first reaction is frustration with squandered opportunities for the federal government to address both pandemic spread and economic hardship. Both could have been considerably ameliorated with sustained, coordinated action from the top over the past 10 months.

Crisis remediation can jumpstart a better process

Meredith Schwartz head shotWhen I look at the state of the nation, my first reaction is frustration with squandered opportunities for the federal government to address both pandemic spread and economic hardship. Both could have been considerably ameliorated with sustained, coordinated action from the top over the past 10 months. They may yet be—to the extent that is still possible—once the Biden administration takes office and digs out of the trust deficit that political interference with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has caused.

But that will take time, and Congressional cooperation that may not be forthcoming. In the meantime, cities and states are left trying to address locally what should be handled nationally. Libraries have to grapple with problems better resolved by cities and states. And library workers (among others) are juggling dilemmas as individuals that could be more effectively dealt with by institutions. At every level, stress, unrealistic expectations, self-blame, and burnout are the results.

And yet, at every level, those stuck in the situation can’t not try. Saying the city should provide help with child care while schools are closed doesn’t keep kids safe and happy while their parents work. Saying the governor should impose a mask mandate doesn’t keep patrons from coughing on the circulation desk. Saying Congress should extend higher unemployment benefits doesn’t help the library director decide who to furlough or lay off when facing drastic budget cuts.

One thing we can do is be realistic and vocal, both about the need to tackle these challenges with the tools, skills, and power we have, and about the limits of our ability to do more than stem the worst of the impact. Like “inspirational” stories about individuals raising money for a personal crisis caused by lack of healthcare, housing, or transportation, the problem is not with honoring extraordinary efforts by individuals, but with leaving uncritiqued the structural barriers that make such efforts necessary, or reinforcing an implicit expectation that everyone can and should be expected to do the same, and so no society-wide changes are needed.

Still, honoring extraordinary effort matters. We should celebrate those who have the drive and creativity, as well as the support and stamina, to provide it. They can truly inspire others—as long as we place their service, and the need for it, in context—and as long as we acknowledge those who seek to fix problems at scale, as well as those who help individuals.

Which brings us to LJ’s 2021 Librarian(s) of the Year, sponsored by Baker & Taylor. Elaine R. Hicks, founder of the Librarian Reserve Corps, and Stacy Brody and Sara Loree, who joined as volunteers and evolved into codirectors, saw a serious need: the World Health Organization was not equipped to review and organize the incoming flood of COVID-19 information. Without accurate, complete, and timely metadata, crucial connections could be missed or incorrectly disseminated. On top of their jobs as academic and medical librarians respectively, they pulled together, with no budget, a 130-plus person team of international volunteers who used core librarianship skills to bridge that gap in the short term. But they didn’t stop there: they went on to forge new partnerships among health information powerhouses public and private, thus enabling this new coalition to focus on a wider range of projects. (For more on their work, see "Battling the Infodemic: LJ's 2021 Librarians of the Year.")

There is no shortage of librarians going above and beyond during the pandemic, from using Maker equipment to produce personal protective equipment for healthcare workers to distributing food and diapers via drive-through to delivering books to students by drone—to say nothing of the everyday heroism of struggling through loss, fear, and uncertainty to deliver as much service as they safely can to communities that need support and connection more than ever.

Where we hope that Hicks, Brody, Loree, and the organization they built can serve as an inspiration is in using the platform of an ad hoc collaboration, formed to meet immediate needs, to facilitate and advocate for systemic fixes over the long haul.

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Meredith Schwartz

mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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