Look both inside and outside your library for post-pandemic community engagement surprises

When our in-person services were put on hold during the start of the pandemic, some people—both library users and even some staff—thought our role in the community might diminish for a time. I didn’t. I knew that our community needed us now more than ever and we couldn’t fail or disappoint them. We, the library, had to get busy, because during challenging times, libraries step up.

Our staff at Greensboro Public Library definitely did. And I am sure that you did, too. The trick, right now, is to make sure that as we transition out of a pandemic mindset, we carefully consider what parts of our expanded role we choose to retain.

My suggestion? Keep seeking out surprises.

Like everyone else, we started our COVID journey in survival mode. The deep cleanings and questions about how to be safe. Part-time work solutions for staff with children or parents to care for. Increasing phone reference and curbside services. Figuring out exactly what to focus on. All the while, there was never a question of “if” we would get everything done—we always do. But there were some valuable surprises along the way.

Unlock more potential in what you already do well

Early into the pandemic, our assistant city manager pulled together a committee to serve small businesses and nonprofits. They needed a source for news and resources since the landscape was changing literally every day. Most of these organizations simply did not have the time or means to get ongoing, accurate COVID-19 health, economic, tax, grant, and public affairs updates while simultaneously dealing with the pandemic itself.

Our library already had a small business librarian on staff, so I called my boss and said, “We’ll do it.” The library started to produce the city’s COVID-19 resource guide, with updates five days a week. That meant more than 130 businesses and nonprofits now see their library as the single-source for news about how to best navigate through the pandemic.

Here’s the surprise—we were probably going to do that work anyway. Someone was going to ask for it, and our small business librarian would get it done. But because the need was so widespread, it had a clearly defined audience ready to subscribe. So, what’s the lesson? There are larger audiences outside your library, ready and waiting for resources you may already produce or can easily pull together. We can now apply this lens to other work that will hopefully lead to new partnerships and, ultimately, increased impact in our community.

Never underestimate your staff

As we evaluated how to continue our community engagement efforts, like others, we dove headfirst into more online efforts. This, of course, put a strain on staff who create videos, both the content creators and those who do video production. So, when someone who works in another division of the library, who isn’t typically responsible for programming, asked to do readers’ advisory videos, I was definitely surprised.  Yes, the person was phenomenal at in-person readers’ advisory, but I just didn’t think that videos would be their thing. But to my surprise, she not only recorded the segments, but also worked with one of her coworkers to edit the videos, so that they would be informative and fun. This is a person who has worked at our library in a part-time role longer than I’ve been here, and I had no idea of her video skills. Her work was terrific, and even got rave reviews from our board of trustees.

Other staff followed suit, producing cooking and book club shows, using this new programming to further promote our collections and other services. And as people adjusted their roles in this way, they had newfound pride and shared their work virtually to friends and family. The final result felt so much more like a community effort versus programming from the library.

This was an important reminder for me that I won’t soon forget. There are talents within your organization that don’t fall into neat silos. Nurturing them can break barriers for people’s careers, increase your connection with the broader community, and uncover new opportunities for programming and services.

Look inside and outside your library for #EngagedLibraries surprises #OCLCnext Click To Tweet

Maintain your momentum of change

There’s so much to unpack and reflect on from our experience this past year when it comes to what we accomplished. Most of all, I want my staff to look at the creative, courageous, and compelling things they did and be very proud. This means not just looking back at successes, but proactively and passionately bringing some things forward to keep. Even if that means shifting how their job was defined previously.

Our library is unquestionably “bigger” than it was at the start of 2020. And our mindset really has shifted. Not only are we even more prepared to tackle change, but we have a clearer view of how to improve the work we’ve always done, build new partnerships, and continue to explore new ways to engage and connect with our community. And we’re so much more open to different options when we get surprised by an unexpected opportunity or outcome.

So, if you did something in a new way this past year, or if your team stretched themselves, or if you expanded or renewed partnerships, keep doing it. Grow those projects, build on small ideas, and continue to give staff the room to make impact in new areas. The results will continue to surprise you.

Share your own success stories using #EngagedLibraries.

Greensboro Public Library is an OCLC Wise early adopter. Learn more about how Wise fits GPL’s goals and aspirations in a short video. For more community engagement inspiration, please visit oc.lc/community-engagement.