Collective Support: LJ's 2022 Librarians of the Year - UPDATE

UPDATED to reflect information on where the prize money has been donated.

 

Each January, Library Journal bestows its Librarian of the Year award on a North American library professional or team whose work embodies the best of the profession’s mission. These have ranged from academic to public to special librarians, and from directors and state librarians to patron-facing staff, but all have demonstrated accomplishments that reflect their commitment to free access to information, service to all areas and constituencies, and strengthening the library role in the community.

The past year has asked much from library workers across the country, among many others. COVID-19 continued to create unprecedented challenges, requiring library staff to balance patron and student needs with their own safety and that of their colleagues and loved ones. New services developed in response stretched time and resources, and as libraries reopened, staff were required to enforce mask and vaccination mandates. Budget shortfalls resulted in furloughs and layoffs. Book challenges in school and public libraries ramped up exponentially, targeting books by authors who are BIPOC and/or members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Due to some local legislative climates, trans authors have been particularly targeted, as have Black authors. These challenges sometimes threaten the employment and even freedom of the library staff, not just the retention of the book. Patrons and students were hurting as well; racial, economic, domestic, and digital inequities became even more obvious.

In response to these needs, library workers continued to expand digital and low- or no-contact offerings, finding ways to ensure that the most popular—and needed—would be sustainable. They distributed food, diapers, and COVID tests; handed out digital devices and hotspots and boosted Wi-Fi signals; offered telehealth options; supplemented remote schooling for K–12 students; and assisted patrons reentering the workforce. College libraries developed open educational resources for instructors and students and helped them improve the virtual classes they shifted to in 2020. Staff at many libraries of all types ramped up efforts to apply an equity lens to their work and amplify the voices of marginalized creators in their communities. They worked to increase access to information for people in prisons. They stood up to those who would censor their collections. And they advocated: for community members who needed help, for more aid to libraries to provide that help, and—perhaps most important—for themselves and one another, making mutual support a priority in the face of widespread fear, tension, and conflicting demands.

Emergency funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) and American Rescue Plan acts has helped, but as Dianne Connery, director of the Pottsboro Area Library (PAL), TX, notes, “There’s all this theory and money and missions out there on a national level, but they need librarians to make it real.”

For all of the above and countless other reasons, the winner of LJ’s 2022 Librarian of the Year award, sponsored by Baker & Taylor, is all library staff. It’s you, reading this. It’s your colleague behind the front desk, the volunteer shelving books, the outreach worker in the bookmobile, the tech staff member setting someone up with their first email account, the instructional librarian helping a first-year student navigate college resources, the school librarian fighting to keep Lawn Boy and Ruby Bridges Goes to School on the shelves for students eager to see the diversity of their world reflected in their reading, the medical librarian wrangling pandemic research to support colleagues saving lives. Congratulations. You’ve earned it.

Fittingly, the idea was inspired by a library staffer. Last summer, LJ received a suggestion via Twitter about its Library of the Year award. Matthew Noe, lead collection and knowledge management librarian at Harvard Medical School’s Countway Library, Boston, and president of the American Library Association (ALA) Graphic Novels and Comics Round Table, proposed, “Maybe it ought to be awarded to library workers as a collective for surviving working during the pandemic.” Twitter user @ReadingChick made a similar suggestion: “I think @LibraryJournal should put library of the year on hold and just honor library workers. Not any one group, not the ‘movers and shakers,’ but let’s just praise everyone for a crap year. Go us.”

While that award had already been decided for Anaheim Public Library, the comments struck a chord.

“I was probably tweeting in frustration, thinking about how so many library workers have reported feeling burnt out and stressed and overburdened over the past two years,” Noe says now. “Everything we think about when we think of the library—what are the people making that possible up to, and how can we recognize the immense stress and levels of work that have been going into that the past couple years?”

Although no single article can fully acknowledge the experiences of hundreds of thousands of library staff members—more than 350,000 in the U.S. alone, according to ALA—we hope this is a start.

 

PANDEMIC CHALLENGES CONTINUE

There was a collective sigh of relief as COVID vaccines began to roll out widely across the country in January and libraries continued to reopen, but the progression has not always been smooth. Individual branches, as well as several presidential libraries, were forced to reclose temporarily due to outbreaks as the Delta variant began to surge.

Transmission wasn’t the only threat to library staff, however. Throughout the year, incidents of hostile objections to mask requirements flared—particularly in counties or municipalities where elected officials chose not to initiate mask mandates despite U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations. Groups regularly gathered at library board meetings to protest mask policies, but even more often, library workers had to contend with angry individuals.

Anti-mask reactions ranged from verbally abusing employees to throwing objects or spitting at staffers. Some administrators considered closing their buildings in light of an uptick in patron hostility. Even when county, city, or state mandates supported mask or proof of vaccine regulations, patrons pushed back.

In Hawaii, where all libraries are part of the statewide system, Gov. David Ige issued an executive order in September mandating all state facilities to require proof of vaccine or a negative COVID test for visitors 12 or older. Hawaii State Public Library System workers immediately became the target of frustrated patrons who hurled library cards at them, vandalized a security guard’s car, and called them names. Throughout the system, however, staff have ensured that unvaccinated visitors can access services without entering the buildings: Chromebooks are available to use outdoors on library Wi-Fi, reference librarians circulate outside, and staff—including Hawaii State Librarian Stacey Aldrich—offer literal hands-on help, bringing unvaccinated parents’ young children inside to choose and check out books.

 

INFORMATION MATTERS

The need to help the public make sense of the often-conflicted messaging they receive from the news, from social media, and from friends and family has not abated.

Helping adults and students of all ages learn to navigate the news cycle is more important than ever. Many public libraries have instituted programming on how to parse news sources and recognize misinformation and disinformation. At Cook Memorial Public Library District (CMPLD), in Libertyville, IL, information literacy is woven into all programming and services—research skills are part of reference interviews, and guest speakers include local experts in civic issues—holistic practices that are becoming common.

Conversations are often difficult, especially on issues that have become enmeshed in partisanship. But staff have patrons’ trust on their side, and they work hard to pay that forward. “If you can sow a little more trust back into other civic institutions with library programming, that credibility built through community dialogue and education is another tactic toward battling misinformation,” notes Nate Gass, emerging technology librarian at CMPLD.

To harness and build on that credibility, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), ALA, the CDC, and a host of partners in the health and museum sectors created Communities for Immunity to help libraries and museums boost vaccine confidence. Two rounds of funding will provide more than 250 awards, from micro-awards of up to $1,500 to engagement awards of up to $100,000, for libraries to create and highlight materials, resources, and programs addressing the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

Meanwhile, academic and medical librarians have played an integral part in helping vet and manage health information. Even with the resources at hand, however, they struggle to manage growing amounts of material—much that needs to be disseminated, but that needs to be validated, or debunked, as well. “What do we do when knowledge itself is not only misunderstood, or not fully understood, but mischaracterized for a social or political purpose?” asks Elaine R. Hicks, founding member of the Librarian Reserve Corps (LRC) and one of LJ’s three 2021 Librarians of the Year.

LRC, a network of health librarians, formed to help the World Health Organization manage the enormous volume of health resources about the coronavirus, and soon incorporated assessing sources for credibility into its mission. Volunteers connect government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, hospital and medical professionals, public library staff, and the general population with verified data. Staff at campus and public library–based consumer health libraries and resource centers help bridge the gap between medical research and members of the public in need of facts. When it comes to librarianship, “There can’t be an occupation more affected by all of this misinformation. It totally undermines what we’re trained to do and all the resources we have to do it,” says Hicks. “On the other hand—we have all the resources to do it.”

 

HELPING HANDS

Despite a long list of challenges, library staff served as lifelines for their communities—applying for grants, enlisting volunteer help, and forging strong alliances with local partners. Even before they reopened, libraries helped distribute meals to families impacted by tightened budgets and to children who could no longer depend on school meals. The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS), winner of the 2021 Jerry Kline Community Impact Prize, joined forces with the city of Little Rock to implement the Be Mighty Little Rock campaign—started by Kay Kay DeRossette Cutler and currently coordinated by Jasmine Zandi—enlisting a roster of partners to help distribute 4.5 million meals, transport kids to meal sites, and develop a nutrition component for after-school and summer programs.

With limited options for broadband service, residents of Pottsboro, TX—with a population of under 2,500—faced connectivity challenges that were severely exacerbated during the pandemic. Pottsboro’s infrastructure issues mirror those of many small and rural communities, and library staff have worked overtime to come up with creative solutions. Connery and her library manager—PAL’s two sole full-time employees—set up a temporary Wi-Fi tower in the parking lot. But outdoor access wasn’t an option for Texas in summer—and many didn’t have transportation—“so we knew the real answer was to get internet into people’s homes,” says Connery. With the help of federal aid and the Emergency Connectivity Fund, the library began offering indefinite checkouts of routers for patrons who live within a mile of the library. PAL, which customarily operates on a $38,000 budget, has applied for $7.5 million in funding to install towers throughout the county.

When it comes to the services libraries have stepped up to provide, “There is such power in what we are doing,” says Connery. “And we are positioned to take it to the next level by working with all these partners who ultimately have the same goals we do. We all have different pieces of the puzzle.”

At the other end of the size scale but facing the same challenges, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, NC, is also using grant funds to give out 20,000 free laptops and provide internet access at home to 800 households.

 

WORKING FOR WELL-BEING

PAL has also established a telehealth room in the library, in partnership with the University of North Texas Health Science Center, for those without access to transportation or time to travel to a doctor. The Health Science Center handles booking and payment details and then contacts the library, so Connery can be available to help patrons connect with their doctor (she then leaves them alone in the private, soundproof space for their appointment). PAL also provides Environmental Protection Agency water testing kits to families, as water quality isn’t regulated in the county’s rural areas, and partnered with a local chemistry professor to teach people about drinking water safety. “It can’t get much more basic than that,” says Connery. “We really are an extension of public services.”

In the early days of the vaccine rollout, when scheduling posed a particular challenge for those with limited internet access or English-language abilities, libraries helped connect older adults, non-English speakers, and those living in underserved neighborhoods with appointments. Nicholas Brown, COO for Communication and Outreach at Prince George’s County Memorial Library System, MD, set up an English/Spanish vaccine hunter phone hotline. Some libraries collaborated with local health services to set up vaccine clinics in branches. In August, 246 Ohio library locations partnered with the Ohio Department of Health to give out at-home COVID tests, a model that originated with Stephanie Buchanan, director of the small Bucyrus Public Library, and is now being replicated in other states.

And it’s not just big stuff. St. Louis County Library, MO, set up a diaper drive-through service in 2020 that has proved popular—and needed—enough to continue. Workers distribute packages of diapers and training pants in branch parking lots; diaper drives keep the supply going.

In addition to longstanding inequities in health outcomes and the digital divide, events of the past years have drawn more attention to widespread systemic racism. Some libraries and library workers are moving to address these head-on. Their outward-facing work includes organizing community conversations and curating libguides and reading lists, such as the Baltimore County Dialogues on Race, presented by Baltimore County Public Library. These are developed in partnership with the Baltimore Human Relations Commission, Baltimore Office of Equity and Diversity, and Morgan State University Radio, inspired by a panel on “COVID and the Black Community” coordinated by Brenda Johnson-Perkins, librarian/adult and community engagement coordinator.

Meanwhile in their internal work, some library staffers are applying an equity lens to how and where services are applied, hiring workers to focus explicitly on these issues, and speaking out in favor of more equitable policies at board meetings, on panels, and in print. At Madison Public Library, WI, for example, Dominic Davis, Jody Mohrbacher, and Yesianne Ramírez-Madera, coleaders of the Racial Equity Change Team, drafted recommendations on the employee transfer process after discovering that its focus on seniority inordinately benefited white staff, and revisions to the behavior consequences policy when an analysis revealed children of color were banned at higher rates than white ones.

At Oak Park Public Library (OPPL), IL, Stephen Jackson, now the library’s first director of equity and anti-racism, was instrumental in integrating restorative justice practices—an approach to repairing and addressing harm done within a community—into the library’s work, and recently helped craft OPPL’s new Anti-Racism Strategic Plan with input from the community. Among other elements, the plan institutionalizes restorative justice into the library’s everyday activities, including a new behavior policy that seeks to reach an agreement between library users and employees rather than punishing patrons for infractions.

The focus on equity is inward facing as well. “We were able to talk with staff about not only their experiences with the public, but the internal issues that that they identified,” says Jackson. “Staff are really receptive.” Since the plan was implemented, he has gotten numerous inquiries from other librarians asking for copies of the language OPPL used.

 

GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT—AND NEED

Virtual programming and story times developed in 2020 proved to be popular, and many libraries have extended them while also beginning to provide in-person programs as they reopen (especially outdoors, where weather permits). Now staffers are grappling with how to offer hybrid programs across both formats, as well as a host of other new services—community gardens and story walks, book and binge bundles, and curbside delivery, while reopening traditional services without additional staffing or funding.

As many patrons look to find new or better jobs as a result of pandemic job losses or the widespread career reevaluation sometimes dubbed the Great Resignation, libraries have grown their workforce development services, with particular attention paid to older adults, those reentering the workforce (whether from caregiving, the armed forces, or incarceration), and residents of underserved communities. As the number of Americans starting small businesses grows, resources for entrepreneurs follow suit.

In Broward County Library, FL, the Built in Broward program provides technical and business training for individuals from historically disadvantaged groups. This includes Black and Latinx entrepreneurs as well as lower-income individuals regardless of race. Sheldon Burke, Built in Broward project coordinator and librarian supervisor at the South Regional/Broward College Library, works with General Assembly, a skills education company, as well as Black Valley Digital, an educational and digital marketing agency, bringing together cohorts of 20 freelancers and entrepreneurs in quarterly incubators. This summer CALS launched its Rock It! Lab, a library-based center for under-resourced entrepreneurs coordinated by Leah Patterson, in partnership with Benito Lubazibwa, founder of the nonprofit Advancing Black Entrepreneurship, in a location that includes maker, retail, and coworking spaces. The New Start Entrepreneurship Incubator, managed by Adam Pitts at Gwinnett County Public Library, GA, provides a six-month business course for individuals who were formerly incarcerated and are now interested in starting their own business.

In colleges and universities, librarians are working to curate open-access content and build open educational resources (OER) for students who lack access to physical materials and need options that are less expensive, and easier to access remotely, than proprietary textbooks. Eileen Rhodes, director of library services at Capital Community College, Hartford, CT, is driving that work in her state, with everything from a series of Textbook Heroes YouTube videos convincing faculty to make the switch to a website that allows faculty to locate OER materials for courses. Investigating alternatives to costly journal subscriptions is also a necessity to counter slashed collection budgets in many academic libraries—in one of the most extreme cases, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries’ funding is scheduled to be cut by $5 million over two academic years.

 

AN OUTBREAK OF CHALLENGES

While libraries have always needed to weather challenges, 2021 brought an unprecedented number of objections to books that tell the stories of those who are members of marginalized racial, ethnic, sexual, or gender groupings. Sometimes, as with a challenge to five books about sexuality, sex education, and LGBTQIA+ issues at Campbell County Public Library, WY, complainants bypassed the formal review procedure and went straight to local law enforcement. In Iowa, two Republican senators are pursuing legislation that makes it a felony offense for school officials to provide “obscene materials” to students.

“It has just been an incredibly difficult year,” says Tyler Sainato, school librarian at Cane Ridge High School in Nashville. She describes her peers as stressed by the prevalence of challenges and already stretched too thin by the lack of resources and having to do double duty as tech help for student devices to effectively advocate for the books under fire.

“These stories that people are trying to ban, the Dear Martins and The Hate You Gives and all of the stories that have similar themes, my kids need those,” says Sainato. “They’re seeing themselves in these texts. And if they’re not seeing themselves, they’re seeing their friends or they’re building empathy for people around them in our school that might be going through what we’re reading about. I can’t imagine telling them that I would have to take that away from them.” 

While her school library has not been the target of a challenge yet, she says, Nashville is a blue city in a red state and “it’s really just a matter of time until it hits.” 

Although school libraries are bearing the brunt of the challenges, public libraries have been targeted as well. David Eckert, director of the Craighead County Jonesboro Public Library, AR, and Assistant Director Tonya Ryals resigned after a prolonged battle with a local Tea Party group over LGBTQIA+ displays commemorating Pride month, and series of contentious library board meetings. These included a policy proposal, put forward by two board members (one married to a member of the challenge group), that the board be given veto power over events, displays, and purchases of materials dealing with sexuality, romantic content, or gender theory. The proposal did not pass, but the debate continues to flare at meetings.

ALA released a statement opposing such censorship efforts, and many community groups have rallied to the aid of the schools and libraries undergoing challenges. But the psychic toll on library staff has been high.

The uptick in censorship efforts “came at a very strategic time, when the field was already feeling a lot of its morale lower than usual,” notes Callan Bignoli, an academic library director in Massachusetts and founder of the LibRev conference and community and the Protect Library Workers campaign. “We’ve been tremendously harmed by layoffs and furloughs and all kinds of budgetary cuts. And these culture war [challenges] get dumped on us in addition to that.”

 

MUTUAL AID

As they stepped forward to help their constituents, library staff have taken care of their own. In the early days of the pandemic shutdown, Bignoli started the #CloseTheLibraries and #ProtectLibraryWorkers campaigns, as well as the online #LIBREV(olution) conference and community to ensure that library workers had ways to support one another.

These group conversations helped pave the way for library workers to advocate for their own safety, calling on directors, boards, and city officials to close libraries in March 2020 and to maintain clear health guidelines and protocols as they reopened. That advocacy is still needed at all levels, notes Bignoli. Professional discourse around morale and burnout is nothing new, “but I do feel like COVID amplified the need for it,” she says.

Library workers have been looking after themselves and one another in a variety of ways. During the worst of the layoffs and furloughs, mutual aid funds from EveryLibrary and the Society of American Archivists made small grants to library staff struggling to make ends meet. Jessica Chapel, librarian/archivist for digital projects at the Harvard Law School Library, Cambridge, MA, and Lydia Tang, special collections archivist-librarian at Michigan State University, E. Lansing, brought the archival fund concept forward.

Beyond money, Bobbi Newman, community outreach and engagement specialist at National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) Greater Midwest Region, coordinated a three-day virtual national symposium on library worker burnout. As she shares in the outreach feature in this issue (p. 25 ff), “It was very clear…how cathartic this event was for library workers. For many, it was the first time they felt seen, heard, and that someone cares about them.” Other workshops on a national, state, or single-system scale similarly focused on staff wellness, resilience, and mental health.

To address at scale institutional gaps that can contribute to stress and burnout, library staff have unionized or started the process in Baltimore County, MD; Hillsboro, OR; Niles-Maine District Library, IL; Northwestern University, Evanston, IL; Skokie, IL; St. Charles, IL; University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and Worthington, OH, part of a national resurgence in organized labor. (Look for an article on library unions in an upcoming issue of LJ.)

Library staff have spoken up when they weren’t satisfied with the way their administration handled issues of COVID safety, staff cuts, or systemic racism, organizing protests in St. Louis, Multnomah, Indianapolis, and Philadelphia—two of which led to the eventual resignation of the director.

Often, advocacy unites all levels of the organization: When vaccines first became available on a phased basis, many library leaders, associations, and workers called for the CDC to give public library staff priority. Directors from California, such as L.A. County Librarian Skye Patrick and then–Sacramento Public Library (SPL) Director Rivkah Sass, to CALS’s Nate Coulter, to Christian Zabriskie, executive director of the Onondaga County Public Library System in New York State, turned to their elected officials and made the case for their staff to qualify en masse—and succeeded.

Employees’ well-being should still be top of mind, says Bignoli. “Leaders and managers have more of a responsibility than ever to be advocating on behalf of their staff members, because they’re under so many different intersecting levels of pressure,” she adds, and need to “shift away from just making sure patrons have what they need and want, and really focus on the staff support component as well.”

Library staff have stepped up to meet new needs and old ones under challenging new circumstances. But for those efforts to be sustainable, they need financial and institutional support—and the recognition that they are excelling despite difficult times, even, or especially, if they aren’t directly involved in headline-grabbing new initiatives.

“Library workers are [the people] who make the library run and make all of this amazing programming and pivoting and fighting against banning and challenges possible,” says Noe. “New ideas are exciting, but then there’s all the maintenance work that’s happening. Recognizing all library workers is recognizing the value of all that unsung work that’s required to make everything happen in the first place.” 


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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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