Califa’s Veronda Pitchford on Libraries as Second Responders

The Califa Group—a nonprofit membership consortium of public, academic, school, research, corporate, medical, law, and special libraries across California—was recently awarded an Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant for the Libraries as Second Responders project, which will help train library staff to serve communities that have been, and continue to be, highly impacted by COVID-19. LJ caught up with Califa Assistant Director Veronda J. Pitchford to find out more about the project.

Veronda Pitchford head shotThe Califa Group—a nonprofit membership consortium of public, academic, school, research, corporate, medical, law, and special libraries across California—was recently awarded an Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant for the Libraries as Second Responders project, which will help train library staff to serve communities that have been, and continue to be, highly impacted by COVID-19. Califa Assistant Director Veronda J. Pitchford is the principal investigator.

At the February 23 LJ Summit, Building the Next Normal, Pitchford spoke on the panel “The Long Haul: How COVID Is Changing Libraries” about the project and how such interventions may amplify the library response during the pandemic—and beyond. LJ caught up with her to find out more about Libraries as Second Responders, and how she and her team at Califa intend to build out the program.

(You can register for free to view this or any other of the summit events on demand here.)

LJ : How did the idea for Libraries as Second Responders come about, and how were you able to move it from “this is something libraries need” to an IMLS-funded project?

Veronda Pitchford: One of our librarians is serving as a contact tracer. I was talking with her about how it aligned with librarianship, and I said, “What have you learned from this that would make you do something different at work? What would you take away from this to bring back to serving people in your community?” And she said, “To have stronger ties with public health. Because some of the people I’m talking to, the word has not gotten out to them, and as I do follow-up calls it’s clear that they don’t have critical information to stay safe. This is a [Latinx] community we serve every day in their own language, and we could have easily partnered with them and gotten stuff done.”

Thinking of that took us down this road of how do libraries effectively partner in times of crisis? In California our members have really stepped up to support communities with fires. We wanted to think through what that second responder role looks like, and who does it, and is there a place for us in it?

The big lightbulb was when we were talking about the work our colleagues around the state and around the country are doing in times of crisis. They’re in motion doing it, but how can we support them in solidifying and elevating that role? Helping local government and other first responders understand the resources we have in that role is what we saw as a potential next step.

The goal is to build replicable strategies to help people, in what unfortunately will be other times of crisis—we’ve heard this time referred to as the age of pandemics. So how can we shore up our resources and get to the table in that role in a more official capacity?

What kind of input did you look for once you came up with the concept?

We started talking about it in early summer [2020] with library people, our friends at COSLA [Chief Officers of State Library Agencies], for example, and Maureen Sullivan, who was [interim] Connecticut State Librarian. I talked to people who had been impacted by [the pandemic]—I was all over the place. I talked to public health people.

And in trying to get work done, I bumped into things. For example, Califa is doing an equity panel for the Association of Rural and Small Libraries. In March, we were putting the proposal together. So I’m like, okay, I’ll just leave a message at these libraries, because nobody is going to be there. And those rural librarians were picking up the phone. And [I asked], “What are you doing at work?” And they’re like, in my community, this is the only place people can file for unemployment. There is nowhere else they can go. And broadband—maybe it was a community where broadband access isn’t a given. They said, “We have to be open.” And that’s not just at rural libraries, that was, and is, at libraries of all sizes and types. At the scariest time, they were on the front lines.

I’m trying to connect with a fire chief right now to talk about a first responder role, and what they see as the library being in a second responder role, to have that be a training. And also look at how libraries have already done that. I talked with [a librarian in] Iowa. They had a derecho during COVID and had no power in the city for two weeks, and the library was decimated. I talked to her about the second responder role they played. They’re such a visible and trusted source in the community. They were helping distribute information—they would make these fact sheets every day for the community to know what was going on, because people didn’t even have internet: “You can charge your phone here. You can go here for X. The water is okay now.”

We got their thoughts on it, just to try to get a sense at a 10,000-foot view—basically, would this play in Peoria? What would training look like? Because we want this to be expanded past libraries talking to libraries.

How did you synthesize such a wide range of input to get to a cohesive plan?

It was a good challenge to stay with library strengths—to stay in our lane. In our lane there are dotted lines, and there are things that we can expand. But I’ve had to check myself, because there’s so much important work that needs to be done out there, and the challenge as libraries is that ethos that brought us to the table makes us want to do it all.

I had to really push myself, and have other people push me, to stay in the lane of our strengths around connectivity—how we connect people to information every day. How can that be expanded and grown? It was a labor of constant iteration. And I just kept cutting and pasting. I would read everything I could about it, about the pandemic from the government, from the CDC, on Twitter about how Indigenous people were being counted as white or “other” in communities so their numbers weren’t really reflected, to commentary from Ibram X. Kendi.

Especially as a person who is not working in a library right now, it’s easy to wax poetic about it. But I want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly of it. And then how do I translate that into a way to resource those people up?

I’m also trying to talk to library people about what their gaps, needs, and challenges are during this time—it goes a lot deeper than that kind of survey-speak that I just used. Some of the leads we’ll need to put our heads together on, because we’re looking at recorded trainings. And how does that work if you don’t have broadband in your area?

What are the trainings going to look like?

We’re going to have recorded trainings in what we’re calling modules. And I want to really ensure that this isn’t just like the trainings I’ve done, a PowerPoint with a talking head. Sometimes it will be people in conversation, sometimes it will be interviewing someone, sometimes it may be just sharing a best practice.

One of the people I had the most amazing conversation with is formerly of the Baltimore Health Department—he was in advertising 20 years, and he’s a Black, gay, AIDS activist—about the power of storytelling, and aligning that with people in health crises. He shared with me that storytelling is data with emotion, and how you can gain insight on people’s needs and how to serve them respectfully and better through the power of storytelling. We want to bring that to life, so people understand it and see it and experience it.

We’re also going to do collateral. There’s a project in Iowa and it’s LBGTQ services. They did a zine on health needs for LBGTQ folks. So I want that to be an example.

We have a very awesome microlearning expert, so that we can take these trainings and distill some of the learning down to five minutes of engaging, interactive videos that will be sharable. Obviously, it would be the most salient points—you can’t do the whole thing in five minutes—but that’s a piece of this as well. We’ll have these recorded trainings in the teachable platform as well as five-minute microlearnings about most of the topics.

How much of this is going to be customizable for different types of libraries or communities? Are people going to be able to pick and choose what they need?

They’ll have access to all of it, and I would encourage them to think through how it looks in their settings. Our goal is to have elements of every training relevant across urban, rural, micropolitan—a little subset of a metropolitan area. Our people training them are professional instructional designers, and they’ll be working with these subject matter experts. Everything isn’t going to be relevant to every single person, but we’ll do our best to ensure that there are pieces of things that work across different library sizes and geographies as well.

We want to support libraries in contributing to systematic change. So we need to support that piece of the puzzle. We don’t want this training to sit with one person in the organization, whoever took the training. We want to give them actionable content to take back and use as they see fit in their organizations.

What will keep the project relevant past the grant period, and post-COVID-19?

We’re looking at the library as a connector, to position the library in the role of convening different parts of the community to identify issues and cocreate ways to address those issues—I’m reluctant to use the word “solutions.” An example of that is applying human-centered design. I found a great person, George Aye. His firm, Greater Good Studio, looks at human-centered design for social impacts specifically, and that aligns with what we do. This isn’t about Post-it notes and coming up with the next step. It’s building a culture of how we respond.

[An international library director] was telling me that there is an NGO [non-governmental organization] to combat loneliness in society, and the library works with it. Loneliness is especially an issue during quarantine, but it’s not exclusive to quarantine, right? So, bringing something like that forward.

That is part of why we’re bringing in subject matter experts who also have experience beyond COVID response, like communicating health information in the AIDS crisis. The goal is that it’s replicable and strategies can be used across crises.

My organization, we’re info people. More concretely, we’ve committed to hosting these trainings. So it’s completely in our wheelhouse, and it’s something that’s very important to us. That’s the plan for sustainability: replicability, working to support the strengthening of the social safety net, making all boats rise for a better society. And libraries play a big role in that, in creating access to education and equity of resources.

What are you taking away from the project for your own work?

I used to have [a sign] in my old office, up on the wall, “Library domination through radical collaboration.” I want us to be out in the streets and at the table so that we can be an important resource in these communities. A lot of people are doing that and I want to be among them.

A lot of things that are bubbling up already needed to be addressed. We were already supporting people by plugging in our stopgaps as libraries, which we always do well. But how can we contribute to that shifting of energy and culture? Not just join the ranks but get in a leadership role to make some change, and lead that conversation.

Like everybody on this planet right now, we’re building the ship as we’re sailing it. And for our library friends, it’s the same metaphor.

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Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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