Design Structures with Community


Libraries must put in place agile structures that empower staff to perform all the essential tasks highlighted in this guide. Library leadership are not the only ones responsible for creating and maintaining empowering structures. Staff at all levels must play a role. Accomplishing this requires aligning solutions that support community needs with the library’s strategic plan and the overarching priorities of supervisors and administrators. It also requires a true focus on the needs of the community over quick and reactive responses. For example, when library buildings were closed, many libraries instituted curbside and grab-and-go services without prioritizing community-based decision making. These time-intensive services enabled staff to ignore deep-seeded community inequities. Unfortunately, in many cases, this response, as noted by a participant in our co-design sessions, “prioritizes patrons who can easily navigate digital systems, who speak English, who are accustomed to using the library in the ways that white people educated in white institutions design.” Remember, staff do not have to do this alone. They can work with like-minded colleagues to understand priorities and align community-based responses to those priorities. When library structures are agile, all staff have the opportunity to be responsive during crises. Two of the structural areas of import during a crisis are:

  1. Responsive policies
    Existing policies may
    make it difficult to adapt easily and leverage assets to serve critical community needs. For example, in many libraries prior
    to the pandemic, borrowing policies required visiting the library to receive a library card. However during the 2020 crises, when visiting a building was not possible, libraries revised their policies to provide electronic cards so that community members were able to access electronic services. Similarly, through our work, we learned that many libraries changed fines and fees policies during the crises of 2020. Administrators and staff must swiftly act to rethink policies that may hinder equitable services during emergency times.
  2. Flexibility in assignment of staff tasks
    When working with the community to build services that leverage assets, library staff
    may need to move away from their current roles. Roles that often tie staff to service desks and materials-based activities, such as circulation and readers’ advisory, will need to be replaced with roles that allow staff the opportunities to engage with the community and serve imminent crisis needs. Administrators must rethink job descriptions so that they decisively support the implementation of essential tasks necessary during crisis times and empower staff to work with and for the community.
"...throughout this whole pandemic, it has become very obvious that the leadership hierarchy of our system is pretty dysfunctional. The communication at the top is not occurring as it should and it feels like we are treading water. The Board is looking at money and pressuring for layoffs. Our district is not poised for attitude changes and/or realignment of focus at this time, sadly."
Participant of Design Session 6


Essential Task in Practice

The Palm Beach County Library (FL) swiftly shifted policies and services during the early stages of the pandemic. This included quickly deciding to revise circulation policies to prevent thousands of borrowers from accruing fines. The ability for the Palm Beach County library to pivot and provide services for community members most in need can also be seen in shifts in other areas. In the summer of 2020, the library transitioned from a library-based food program sponsored by the school district to a drive-up program sponsored by the county’s Youth Services Department. The Youth Services Department was just getting started with their food program and the library was ready to help. Families were able to drive up to a library location, let staff know how many meals were needed, and library staff then loaded the pre-packaged food boxes into the trunk of community member’s cars. As crisis decisions were made in Palm Beach County, different structures were used for that decision making. When the decision was made about summer food service, the program was discussed with the management team. The team decided to move forward and then let staff know about the shift in services. In other instances, library leadership created teams who investigated the best ways to proceed in meeting needs and leveraging assets. For example, when library branches were going to reopen, committees and sub-committees were formed, and managers and staff were asked to provide feedback. Overall, there was an interactive process for decision making.

During the 2020 crises, the Palm Beach County Library continued to maintain the philosophy of starting small (in a limited capacity) and then building out and iterating services as needs and capabilities were understood and uncovered.

Do It With Others [DIWO]*

  1. Review library policies, procedures, mission, vision, goals, staffing models and job descriptions, and strategic plan with an eye to changes that need to be made in order to build community-based responsive services during times of crisis.
  2. Align community-based needs and assets with crisis centered leadership and administrative priorities.
  3. With like-minded colleagues, advocate for community-based crisis-era solutions to leaders and administrators based on crisis priority alignment.

*We use the phrase Do It With Others (DIWO) instead of Do it Yourself (DIY) which we derived from the maker movement vernacular (see Maravilhas & Martin, 2017) to reflect the nature of these steps that emphasize the focus on community and collectivism, further calling library staff to embrace the public servant mindset.


Maravilhas, S., Martins., J. (2017). Tacit Knowledge in maker Spaces and FAB LABs: From DO IT YOURSELF (DIY) to DO IT WITH OTHERS (DIWO). Handbook of Research on Tacit Knowledge Management for Organizational Success. Available at: