Engaging with Purpose: Libraries as Healing Spaces

Over the past month, students across the country started their first day of school—it’s a day of excitement, promise, and the hope of new growth. For some students, including those who were at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, it’s a challenging time—how to reach for the future without the pain of the past. Importantly, libraries help!

Libraries know the importance of engaging with their communities, and they know how to do this. Over the summer, El Progreso Memorial Library in Uvalde, Texas, became a center of healing for the community—a place to bring people together in times of sorrow, as well as times of joy. I urge you to watch this news segment about how the El Progreso Memorial Library helped support its community in need and to think about the special role that libraries play in strengthening communities.

Through our Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM), NLM supports member libraries’ responses within communities around the country to address their health information needs. Our primary goal for engagement through the NNLM is to open a pathway between the community and NLM to make sure our resources are available, accessible, usable, and relevant to them, and to learn from them how they can best access our resources.

We can’t lift up communities without engaging with them, and we can’t be everything to communities. But by our engagement, we co-define the rules of engagement and show how what we do supports what they need.

The story of the El Progreso Memorial Library’s response to the needs of the Uvalde community inspired me in a way that I had not expected. Many times, the “rules of engagement” begin with a clear delineation of who we are and what our business is, essentially letting us step into a community with what we already know how to do. Suppose we started off at a different place—the place that engages with the community by beginning with the question, “What do you need?”

Now, starting with this question does not require us to be all things to all people—this would be foolhardy and frankly not something that would help us be true to our stewardship of the public’s federal investment. But… by starting with the question—“What do you need?”—perhaps we would organize our resources in ways we have yet to envision that make them even more accessible and responsive for those communities. This effort aligns with the second goal of the NLM Strategic Plan to engage with new people in new ways.

And maybe we would learn new things or more effective ways to reach communities. Libraries have a special space in the panoply of communities—we bring a wide range of resources to a wide range of people. Engaging with openness brings us closer to those who need us to bring those resources to them!

Please look around at the communities you are part of and that you serve. Think of how you reach into those communities and of new ways to ask, “What do you need?” to better understand how to serve them!

Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD

Director, National Library of Medicine

Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.

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