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Impetus for the Field Guide

In the summer of 2020, we worked with 137 library staff to learn how they were supporting their communities while library buildings were fully or partially closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 was the impetus for this work; however, as the process launched the country saw increased civic unrest resulting from the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and Dion Johnson. As a result of the multiple crises facing the nation, this work took on an expanded role to focus on the multiple crises facing the country.

Through our work, it became apparent that public library staff aspire to support their communities but do not know how, or rush headlong to design ways to serve their communities. Staff reacted and provided what they could as events unfolded. Through a series of seven virtual participatory design sessions, we co-learned and co-created solutions on how to support communities during crises with library staff serving non-dominant youth* and their families. We intend this Field Guide to be useful to all library staff, although staff at different levels and with different experiences will use the information within the context of their own work. Similarly, throughout this Guide we use the phrase “library staff” and the term “you” interchangeably. We believe that those using this document will see library staff as a collective “you” in this work. While this Field Guide focuses on supporting non-dominant youth and families, we believe it can be adapted to serve the needs of other age groups. To learn more about what we learned throughout our work and the impetus for the Field Guide, we encourage you to read our articles published in the School Library Journal (find it on our publications page).

*Instead of using terms like minority, diverse, or of color, we use the term non-dominant youth because it “…explicitly calls attention to issues of power and power relations…to describe members of differing cultural groups” (Ito, et al., 2013, p7). We define youth as inclusive of ages 0-18.

Embrace the Public Servant Mindset

A primary requirement to successfully support non-dominant youth and families during times of crisis is to have a mindset centered on community and public service. Public servants make decisions with community members. Library servants make decisions for them (Yoke, 2020)*. To achieve this public servant mindset where library staff make decisions with community members on the programs and services that are needed during crises, staff must:

  • Focus on community needs and assets rather than library interests or what they think communities need.
  • Focus on solutions and not problems by resisting the temptation to get stuck in challenges, instead consider how solutions can be co-created with the community to result in measurable outcomes.
  • Realize that equitable services go beyond access to physical materials and the library building.
  • Have flexible library policies and structures in place.
  • Let go of legacy programs and services by reflecting on the programs and
    services they should keep, what they should leave behind, and what should
    be added (Finch, 2020).
  • Rethink “why libraries?” during a crisis.As library staff consider services and programs to offer during crises, every decision made should center on the answers to two vital questions (Hughes-Hassell, 2020):
    1. To what extent does your conception of equity in libraries boil down to providing access to library resources and services and in what ways may that reinforce existing power structures?
    2. What might equity in library services look like beyond access?
*We are grateful to Beth Yoke from the Cincinnati Public Library, who offered this pertinent and notable framing of library staff as public servants.
"I was surprised by how hard it is to get out of the “about the library” brain"
Participant of Design Session 6

Essential Tasks for Preparing to Support Communities During Crisis

The essential tasks we set forth here are a call to action for public library staff to shift their mindsets and put the critical relationships, processes, and skills in place prior to rethinking what programs and services are needed during a local, regional, or national crisis. These essential tasks are: learn about community, co-create with community, iterate and assess with community, and design structures for community. These tasks center on all library staff having a community-first mindset, flexibility in operations and decision-making, an openness to change, and a commitment to risk-taking.

While all of these essential tasks can be launched for the first time by library staff during times of crises, staff that have existing relationships in place with community members and organizations will be able to move more rapidly through these tasks than those that do not. That said, even without such relationships in place, these tasks can be accomplished during a crisis (albeit slowly), and should continue after the crisis. These essential tasks assume that those using this Field Guide understand and accept the need for this mindset and are ready to do what is necessary to move forward in this way for and with youth, families, and communities. These essential tasks are non-sequential and iterative – one may repeat each task multiple times or repeat one or more of selected essential tasks if the determination is made that it is necessary to support their community during crises.

More information about each essential task can be found under the Field Guide tab.

A full-text PDF of this Field Guide is available as a free download from our publications page.  

Suggested Citation: Subramaniam, M., Braun, L.W., Asgarali-Hoffman, S.N., Jordan-Stovall, K. & Kodama, C. (2021). Library staff as public servants: A field guide for preparing to support communities in crisis. College Park, MD: University of Maryland.

About the Authors:

Dr. Mega Subramaniam is a Professor and the Co-Director of the Youth Experience (YX) Lab at the College of Information Studies (iSchool) at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on enhancing the role of libraries in fostering the mastery of emerging digital literacies that are essential to STEM learning among non-dominant youth.

Linda W. Braun is a Learning Consultant at LEO. Her work focuses on the design, implementation, and assessment of out of school time activities for youth and families.

S. Nisa Asgarali-Hoffman is a PhD student at the College of Information Studies (iSchool) at the University of Maryland. Her research focuses on informal learning spaces and the intersection of art, biotechnology, and race.

Keanu Jordan-Stovall is an Academic Advisor and M.L.I.S. graduate from the College of Information Studies (iSchool) at the University of Maryland. His research focuses on examining equitable practices to enhance access for historically underrepresented identities and the role of social capital and community structures in the educational field.

Dr. Christie Kodama is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Technology and Literacy department within the College of Education at Towson University. Her research focuses on professional development for school librarians and leadership and change management in educational settings.


Finch, M. (2020). Values, Future, and Relationship-Building for Youth Services [PowerPoint Slides].

Hughes-Hassell, S. (2020). Equity = Justice. [Google Slides], School Library Journal Research Study Session 3, Digital, 6/30/2020.

Yoke, B. (2020). Rethinking our role to better serve the community during and beyond times of crisis. [PowerPoint slides].