Wholehearted Librarianship during the Pandemic


Published: April 20, 2020 by Dr. Michael Stephens

Taking the long view, I would say that librarians spent a lot of time in the 1990s and 2000s figuring out how to use rapidly evolving technology to better serve their users. The internet reached the masses and libraries stepped up with classes and access. Later, social networking across multiple platforms and smart mobile devices lead to knowledge creation and learning on the go. Learning could happen everywhere! It was a rather amazing time and technology innovations continue to come at us with the speed of light. However, in the past few years, I’ve witnessed a conscious shift back to our spaces, our libraries, and how we welcome our users in. Such innovation in places like Aarhus, Denmark and Helsinki, Finland.  And after all this time, it still comes back to my mantra that the library should encourage the heart.

PublishingWholehearted Librarianship: Finding Hope, Inspiration, and Balancewith the American Library Association last year was a milestone for me. This second collection of columns, essays and blog posts captures a lot of my thinking about how we can best serve our users. The concepts include bringing our hearts to work, nurturing qualities such as empathy, emotional intelligence, and reflective action, and providing service steeped in humanism, compassion, and understanding.

From the Preface:

It’s not just “How tall is Mount Rainier?” these days. And as uncertainty on a global scale seems to permeate life, libraries have stepped up to help people.

How can we help others in these turbulent times without first helping ourselves? 

It’s a beautiful balancing act. We take care of our users through innovative services such as those at Gwinnett County Public Library, or  offering spaces and services steeped in the Danish concept of Hygge, a cozy feeling of belonging. At the same time, we take care of ourselves through professional learning experiences and networking in person and virtually. We grow our libraries thoughtfully with staff hired for their “super powers” and we offer opportunities for all staff to learn and develop essential skills.

I have been honored to present about these topics at ALA Annual, the Cedar Rapids Public Library staff development day, and as part of the Library 2.0  Wholehearted Libraries conference in February. Please take look at the recordings for the amazing sessions our presenters shared.

And then the world changed.

We hunkered down. We social distanced. Suddenly, one of my favorite pastimes — long walks in the Michigan forest — became my one and only excursions out into the world. Neighbors would chat from afar and I would say goodbye with “Stay safe and be well.” Perhaps you have said that too as you end a conversation or sign off Zoom Happy Hour with friends and family. I would add this to that farewell: “Stay connected.”

And that’s what brings us back to librarianship and the heart. What I have seen over these past few days, weeks, months is librarians and educators taking up a challenge to switch gears and take services into landscapes that might not be familiar to all. We have had online services for years in libraries, but now everything is online! Brian Kenney, director of the White Plains Public Library sent me his library’s email newsletter, and said: “Check out our Zoom programming all assembled in a week by my amazing team.” The staff stepped up to create Zoom sessions devoted to book clubs and meditation, programming for teens and seniors, and more.

The library where I worked for 15 years is doing similar. The St. Joseph County Public Library in South Bend, Indiana is offering  daily storytimes for kids from multiple children’s librarians across the system, including Miss Darla and Miss Jill, and Saturday Night Stories, a storytime series for adults, led by Mr. Joe. He recently shared a tale from The LIFE Treasury of American Folklore called “De Witch Woman.”

These are just two examples of what is happening these days with COVID-19. As many libraries have closed their physical buildings, their virtual offerings remain. The library is not closed! Library folk have stepped up to keep the human face of the library visible in unique and exciting – online story times, video chats for reference and tech help, phone services with library phones transferred to staff working at home.  (See also Danish librarian Christian Lauersen’s post “Never Let a Crisis go Waste” for more.) I love this example from Desmond Fish Public Library and all the librarians in their Zoom windows.

This is the human face of the library!  And this is what it means to stay connected.

We are discussing these changes in my classes. The landscape will surely be different on the other side of the pandemic, but I know for sure that librarians and soon to be librarians will have the skills and mindsets needed to meet each new challenge. Things to ponder: even after this crisis passes, will spaces need to be larger or more controlled? Will one on one service still be possible? Will our interactions need to be virtual? How will this new “touchless” generation impact libraries?

Wishing you all to stay safe, be well and stay connected from northern Michigan!


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