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Editor’s Note: The Commonwealth of Virginia’s library systems differ dramatically both in the size of their facilities and the amount of people they serve. The most important services the library offers to its constituents can vary depending on the communities in which they operate. In the next few Public Library Spotlights we will take a look at how different community library systems have responded so far to the pandemic. This week we focus on a mid-sized library system, Newport News Public Library with Director Sonia Alcántara-Antoine.

Sonia Alcántara-Antoine

Director of Newport News Public Library

Managing a mid-sized urban public library in the midst of a pandemic has been challenging, to say the least. Many library directors like myself were gripped with existential questions with unknown answers: how to provide service and access to our community without jeopardizing the safety of staff or patrons; how to maintain productivity when branches were closed; how to sustain public service beyond the confines of our physical facilities; and how to provide personalized service in a socially distant environment, to name a few.

Most of my days as a Library Director are wonderfully full and fulfilling; however, I found the early weeks of the pandemic to be exacting and exhausting. What helped me immensely during this time was constant communication, collaboration, and commiseration with colleagues.

I attended weekly calls with city leadership to manage the crisis on the ground. We focused on larger community issues like how to get enough PPE for city staff and emergency responders, and how and when to reopen city facilities to the public. We shared the latest information from the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health. We analyzed data and from there determined the best way to move forward as a city. Libraries had a seat at the table and were a part of that conversation, shaping what public service in Newport News would look like in this new normal.

Other library directors buoyed me during this time. Every day my e-mail inbox was overflowing with messages from library directors across the Hampton Roads region, the state, and throughout the country. We were all in the exact same boat – trying to figure out the nature of library service during and post-pandemic. Thousands of e-mails were exchanged about topics both mundane and unprecedented: curbside pickup, how long to quarantine items, virtual programming, telework, continuity of essential operations, projected budget cuts, digital equity, reopening plans, and how best to support students in online learning environments. At times I found the sheer volume of e-mails overwhelming, but honestly, it was a light in the darkness. None of us were prepared for this. There was no “Libraries and Pandemics 101” course during library school. Knowing that I was not alone in the storm gave me calm. I found solace in my peers as we banded together as a profession to weather this crisis.

Staying in close contact with colleagues grounded me as a leader. I was able to provide the same foundation for my staff, who were looking for levelheaded and steady leadership in a very bewildering and scary time. I held weekly calls on Microsoft Teams with my leadership team so that we could figure out how to respond to a quickly evolving situation and operate from the same playbook. Messaging to staff became more centralized. Even though all of our lives had been upended and our work life had become far less routine, as library director I projected calm reassurance and empathy. ‘We will all get through this together’ became my mantra to staff.

Professionally successful people know that it can be lonely at the top. Throw a global pandemic into the mix, when we all need to be at least 6 feet apart and most of our outlets for socialization and release are taken away, and that loneliness begins to feel like isolation. But library leaders do not have to feel isolated in this or any crisis. No leader is ever expected to know everything or figure things out alone. In fact, there is strength in a leader having enough humility to admit when they when they need help. One silver lining to COVID-19 is that it has shown the enormous benefits of having a professional network. That support from colleagues can be a lifeline in challenging times and can keep a leader going when the going gets tough.

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