Gathering emerging insights from the field – a REALM project update

Throughout the first part of 2022, the Reopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project has been hosting a series of online forums to foster discussion, knowledge sharing, and mutual support among those who work in and with the cultural heritage field. The proposed purpose of these forums was to “gather emerging insights from the field” and apply those ideas to future REALM deliverables. In this blog post, I’ll share briefly how these forums will inform REALM’s work, what we learned in the first two sessions, and what’s on the horizon for the third and final forum.

Perhaps it’s because I grew up with an entomologist for a parent, but when I think of emerging insights, I picture cicadas popping up through the ground, shedding their old skin, and taking flight after 13 or 17 years spent toiling underground, waiting for just the right conditions to emerge. Likewise, when I think of gathering from the field, I picture standing in a marsh wearing hip waders, scooping up insects and storing them in glass vials to bring to the lab for further study—something we children sometimes did to help Dad, gaining a little STEM learning along the way. But, of course, those are just my sense-based memories leading to a strained metaphor.

A cicada emerging from its chrysalis.
Photo of cicada by maxime raynal from France, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

For the REALM project, gathering insights arising from the pandemic experiences of staff and leaders in the cultural heritage field does not involve insects, or wading in a marsh, and it certainly couldn’t wait 17 years for the perfect conditions to emerge. It does involve convening, understanding, and sharing within and beyond our professional sectors, to strengthen our collective capacity to adapt and respond to new conditions.

As a reminder, the REALM project launched in April 2020 to provide science-based information to support cultural heritage institutions in their local decision making in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the ensuing two years, the project has

  • collected and summarized research related to the COVID-19 virus that may be applicable to the collections, operations, and facilities of archives, libraries, and museums
  • completed and published a laboratory study on how the COVID-19 virus interacts with materials commonly handled by staff and public in those facilities
  • produced toolkit resources that support operational and other decision making specific to cultural heritage institutions.

Throughout this work, the OCLC and IMLS project team members have continuously consulted with a steering committee, operational and scientific working groups, and other subject matter experts from cultural heritage institutions, their professional associations, government agencies, and public health organizations. Focus group sessions and a survey conducted last year helped us gauge whether the information the project was producing was useful and what was needed to help staff and leaders feel informed and supported through the next phase of the pandemic. We also have listened to the questions and suggestions from those working in archives, libraries, and museums during the 40+ live presentations we’ve given and the 160+ questions we’ve fielded through our project mailbox.

As we turned our calendars to 2022, we introduced another method to listen and learn: a series of three virtual facilitated conversations with representatives of archives, libraries, museums, and related service organizations and agencies. Our goal for these conversations has been to elicit examples, perspectives, and ideas that can lead to new initiatives and projects to bolster capacity and resilience of cultural heritage institutions. The input from these discussions is being used to inform the development of crisis management toolkit resources for libraries, archives, and museums; and, to develop ideas for follow-on initiatives that would strengthen the capacity of cultural institutions as local community hubs. The forums have been constructed to cover the following topics.

Forum 1: Crisis Management in Libraries, Archives, and Museums

Using a three-round World Café format, this two-hour discussion on 26 January explored the question: “What information and resources do cultural heritage institutions need—and in what format—to prepare for, navigate through, and recover from public health crises?” Breakout rooms delved into four topics related to crisis management: (1) Decision-making; (2) Leading staff and public; (3) Facilities and operations; and (4) Resource networks.

While responses and experiences were diverse across all participants, the collective discussion outlined some emerging practices and recommendations for crisis management in cultural heritage organizations. 

At the end of the forum, a final question posed to the group was: “What is one insight or action step you are taking away from this discussion?” The responses included:

  • Build your network before you need it. 
  • Document our crisis decision-making processes now, so that we’ll have it for next time. Providing a narrative about how and why we made our decisions will be valuable to our future selves. 
  • Rethink who our peers are—not just organizations like us, but organizations near us. Expand our community outreach and connection. 
  • Connect with different organizations in close proximity to us; they understand our hyper-local context. 
  • Consider who our partners and collaborators are and include more folks who are different from us so that we can learn from them. 
  • Reach out to partners who are in the for-profit sector, such as vendors, for support and resources. 

Forum 2: Building the Capacity of LAMs as Community Hubs During Public Health Crises

This two-hour event on 3 March gathered 27 participants to explore the question: “How do we build the capacity of libraries, archives, and museums to serve as community hubs during times of public health crisis?” Participants shared examples of how their institution showed up in this role during the pandemic, and the discussion gathered insights about the factors that might lead a library, archives, or museum to be a place that community members turn to in times of crisis for information, resources, services, sanctuary and/or programming. The Forum also elicited perspectives about the challenges of such a role and how those challenges might be addressed, so that cultural heritage institutions and support organizations can envision a path forward together.

Summaries of the key comments and take-aways from those Forums were circulated to the participants, REALM project stakeholders, and are now posted to the REALM website.

Our third and final Forum will be on 27 April, on the topic of Resource Networks and Collaborative Partnerships Toward Healthy Communities. This event will gather participants from public health, nonprofit, and cultural heritage sectors to discuss their experiences with developing, activating, or joining resource networks in response to COVID-19. The discussion will explore insights from those experiences that can help to strengthen and sustain networks toward a shared goal of improving public health outcomes.