Build on Strengths When Responding to a Crisis

Sharon Streams, Executive Director, WebJunction /

Originally published October 14, 2021 in OCLC's Next blog, written by Sharon Streams, Executive Director of WebJunction.

As the REALM project (REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums) continues to gather and adapt science-based information to inform local decision making by libraries, archives, and museums, it’s been essential to listen to the real-world experiences at these institutions. These perspectives ensure that the information is relevant to the operations and services of the field. In a collection of nine interviews, leaders of libraries, museums, and member associations describe how they leveraged their institutions’ core strengths and drew upon trusted partners to navigate the crisis, helping to protect the health and well-being of staff and community members. These interviews help identify common ground among institutions in their response to a global crisis and spotlight opportunities for local partnerships between different types of cultural heritage institutions that can strengthen resources and local impact.

Plan, document, communicate; repeat as necessary

In one interview we spoke with the safety, health, and security manager at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI), Grant Vondracheck, who walked us through their efforts to keep staff and visitors safe and programs accessible to community members. A highly collaborative Reopening Task Force worked together to create a COVID-19 response plan, a hefty and ever-evolving document that captures state and local guidelines and resources, communication and signage templates, and operational procedures. OMSI also has an emergency response team that has undergone training, tabletop exercises, and real-time response during the past two years. Grant says, “I do think that additional training and having that team ready to go at all times is very valuable and I think that’s helped us with COVID, even though we—like everyone else—were blindsided by COVID.”

All nine interviewees give examples of their continuous learning and adapting to provide services, education, and entertainment to people during challenging times—and finding moments of joy and inspiration along the way:

  • Grant Vondrachek, Safety, Health and Security Officer, Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (Oregon)
  • Kelvin Watson, Executive Director, Las Vegas-Clark County Library District (Nevada)
  • Kathy Zappitello, Executive Director, Conneaut Public Library (Ohio)
  • Frederic Bertley, CEO and President, Center of Science and Industry (Ohio)
  • Jennie Garner, Director, North Liberty Library (Iowa)
  • Kate Laughlin, Executive Director, Association for Rural & Small Libraries
  • Belinda Tate, Executive Director, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (Michigan)
  • William T. Harris, President and CEO, Space Center Houston (Texas)
  • Carole Charnow, CEO, Boston Children’s Museum (Massachusetts)

Start with your strengths and find partners to complement them

These leaders and institutions demonstrate how to recognize what you already do well (“We know science,” “We know our community,” “Change is second nature to us”) and use those strengths as the fuel for your trip through unknown, challenging territory.

In some cases, the pandemic was the impetus to ignite strategies that were already planned, such as integration of the digital experience or investments in new equipment or expanded services. Many of our interviewees also discuss adding new safety protocols that they expect to keep in place as new best practices, regardless of pandemic conditions. Others emphasize how they’ve been reckoning with the access disparities that are more visible with the pivot to virtual services, and they are more committed to closing the digital divide in their communities.

Whether you work in a library big or small, a museum of any type, an archive or special collection, these stories illuminate how both common and distinct challenges help us feel part of a network that stretches across states and nations composed of institutions working hard to keep people informed, educated, entertained, and connected.

Learn more about the REALM project