November 16, 2017

Five Libraries Win 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service

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Michelle Obama presenting opening remarks at the National Medal for Museum and Library Service award
Photo credit: Earl Zubkoff for Institute of Museum and Library Services

Ten libraries and museums were presented with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service in a ceremony at the White House on June 1. First Lady Michelle Obama joined IMLS director Kathryn K. Matthew to honor institutions from across the country for outstanding service to their communities, including one academic and four public libraries: North Carolina State University Libraries, Raleigh; Brooklyn Public Library, NY; Madison Public Library, WI; Otis Library, Norwich, CT; and Santa Ana Public Library, CA.

Each winner was represented at the ceremony by both a director and a community member whose life or work had been significantly impacted by the services their institution offered. “In their own way,” said Matthew at the event’s opening, “each of these ten have made a difference, leaving their surrounding neighborhoods and communities better because of their presence and outreach.”

The National Medal, presented annually by IMLS, represents the highest award given to museums and libraries for service to their communities; 162 recipients have been honored over 22 years. The winners, announced in April, were selected from 30 finalists nominated by their communities. Finalists were reviewed by members of the National Museum and Library Services Board, the presidentially appointed policy advisory board for IMLS, and then recommended to Matthew, who selected the winners. In addition to the medal, this year’s winners each received $5,000 and will have their community members’ stories documented by StoryCorps, a national nonprofit organization that records, preserves, and shares oral histories. Transcripts of last year’s winners’ stories can be read on IMLS’s 2015 National Medal Winners page. These stories are preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. In addition, StoryCorps’ animation “The Bookmobile,” from one of the recordings made at Pierce County Library, a 2013 National Medal winner, was broadcast nationally on NPR’s Morning Edition.

The First Lady presented the award in the historic East Room of the White House, where, she noted, “Over the years, we’ve hosted performances and workshops on everything from Broadway musicals.” She added, “your work and the work of libraries and museums across the country has actually helped make so many of these events possible whether you understand how you’ve done that or not. Time and time again, it’s our nation’s libraries and museums who have sparked the imaginations and encouraged the interests of so many of our nation’s most accomplished authors and performers.”

PATH TO CITIZENSHIP IN BROOKLYN

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Brooklyn Public Library acceptance (l-r): Kim Best, Michelle Obama, Linda E. Johnson
Photo credit: Earl Zubkoff for Institute of Museum and Library Services

Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) led off the award-winners, with president and CEO Linda E. Johnson and community member Kim Best accepting on its behalf. Best’s story highlighted the valuable community services provided by the library. A steadfast BPL patron since age six, when her family emigrated from Guyana in 1981, Best discovered some 30 years later that although her mother was naturalized she herself was not a citizen. Best turned to the citizenship classes offered at BPL’s Central Library, an 11-week course that helps participants prepare for the naturalization test—and work on their English, if necessary.

Not only did the course’s content help her become a citizen, Best explained, but the social component was important as well. “I got to meet many [people] from different cultures, and it was such a welcoming environment,” she told LJ. “We all worked together. We did mock interviews, we critiqued each other. The instructors…they’re phenomenal. They take time with you. You were never ignored.” She became a U.S. citizen in October 2015.

Best, who has brought up her ten-year-old son as an avid library and museum user as well, was visibly moved to be part of the award ceremony. “I never thought in my wildest imagination that I would have been selected to go,” she said. “Everyone—BPL, IMLS, the White House—the love that they bestowed on me and the gratitude that I feel is overwhelming. I’ll just carry that with me.”

MADISON MEDIA OUTREACH

Accepting the award for the Madison Public Library (MPL) were director Greg Mickells and Rob Franklin, a rapper and spoken word hip-hop artist who became involved with the library while looking for work when he first moved to Madison. MPL’s artist in residence introduced Franklin to the free classes and equipment at the library’s media lab, where he went on to produce music and videos of his own work. Franklin began volunteering at MPL, teaching audio engineering and video production classes to local students and at-risk youth at a nearby juvenile detention center.

“The Madison Public Library’s programs and services promote creativity, innovation, and collaboration,” Matthew said in a statement. “Library initiatives—such as… early literacy efforts delivered through home health nurses and service to homeless residents—address community challenges and engage residents in new and exciting ways.”

While the award itself was a great honor, Mickells explained to LJ, “What’s really special is that it’s for the city, their support of libraries”; MPL was nominated by Madison congressman Mark Pocan (WI-02). “We were finalists last year, so it’s kind of nice to finally win it,” Mickells added. The award “brings recognition to what we’re achieving in the community, and what it really speaks toward is [that] libraries aren’t what people traditionally think…. So with Rob doing the work with the community, I think it’s going to be pretty interesting to see [how people will react] when they hear our story.”

ACADEMIC TECH AT NCSU

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NCSU acceptance (l-r): Marsha Gordon, Michelle Obama, Susan Nutter
Photo credit: Earl Zubkoff for Institute of Museum and Library Services

The sole academic library in the winning lineup (and one of only two academic libraries to win the award in its history), North Carolina State University (NCSU) Libraries were honored for serving “as a gateway to knowledge for the local community and its partners.” Vice provost and executive director of libraries Susan Nutter and associate professor Marsha Gordon, who teaches film studies, accepted on NCSU’s behalf. After 14 years of teaching at NCSU, said Gordon in a statement, she was able to “breathe new life” into class research projects by partnering with NCSU Libraries to use their technology—particularly the university’s James B. Hunt Jr. Library, opened in January 2013.

“It is such a gift to have the library system that we have at [NCSU],” Gordon told LJ. “It is a very 21st-century situation we have on our hands here, and our students are so lucky to have it.”

“It was very interesting,” Nutter noted. “I suddenly heard from all of my colleagues when the nomination request came out, and they said, ‘you know, we’ve never really had an academic research library win this, and we all feel [NCSU] should.’”

Both Nutter and Gordon praised the NCSU library staff. “The fellows program [brings] in really, really talented young librarians who are doing cutting-edge technology in particular, and that makes it possible for it to be as innovative as it is,” said Gordon.

The university chancellor will be holding an open house in celebration for the entire NCSU community, Nutter told LJ. “We didn’t expect to win! So this is great,” she said, adding, “We have a lot of fun, I think all of us.”

MULTICULTURAL IN CONNECTICUT

Accepting for the Otis Library were executive director Robert Farwell and community member Bassem Gayed, who used the library as a resource to learn about American culture and prepare for his citizenship test when he first moved to the United States from Egypt. Gayed also took a job at the library’s reference desk for a few hours a week, which eventually resulted in his being appointed Multicultural Services Coordinator. As the sole Spanish-speaking staff member, he was able to develop services, programs, and materials targeting immigrants—and to help American-born library users become more familiar with other cultures.

In his statement, Gayed explained, “At the library, if we teach kids from a young age about other cultures—that there are other people who think, live, and worship this way—it makes a difference, it makes a better world!”

“We always want to pursue community needs and engage with residents on a regular basis to address what they want from a library,” stated Farwell on the library’s website. “That summarizes why Otis is successful.” The Otis Library serves the smallest community represented in 2016—just under 40,500, in contrast to MPL’s 300,000, and over a million for BPL.  “We are not a passive organization, but an extremely proactive, dynamic one,” Farwell said. “That is what we pride ourselves on the most.”

SANTA ANA’S SEEDS TO TREES

Santa Ana Public Library (SAPL) was represented by director Heather Folmar and Santa Ana resident Victor Gudiel. Gudiel first visited SAPL as a high schooler. His family was homeless at the time, and Gudiel began spending time at the library nearly every day after school, eventually taking a part-time library job. He received homework help through the library, and eventually assistance applying to colleges and navigating the financial aid process.

SAPL’s Seeds to Trees Digital Media Technology Academy, a partnership with the Rancho Santiago Community College District’s Corporate Training Institute, offers local youth age 16–21 a free, comprehensive apprenticeship program, including paid training and work experience internships. After taking part in the program, Gudiel discovered a passion for film production, and is now studying production at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

“I didn’t think I was going to go to college, said Gudiel in a statement. “That wasn’t a reality until I started coming to the library. It exposed me to a lot of things and what I want to do in my life.”

Matthew added in a statement from IMLS, “This small library is among the best of the best.”

“THE HEART OF THE COMMUNITY”

In addition to the five National Medal–winning libraries, five museums were honored as well: The Chicago History Museum, IL; Columbia Museum of Art, SC; Lynn Meadows Discovery Center for Children, Gulfport, MS; Mid-America Science Museum, Hot Springs, AR; and Tomaquag Museum, Exeter, RI.

“With the National Medal, we celebrate institutions that are doing the extraordinary: working hand-in-hand with their communities to problem-solve and create collective visions for the future,” Matthew told LJ. “We see this happening with each of the five winning libraries. From the small Otis Library…with its offerings for people with special needs, to the North Carolina State University Libraries, where programming ideas are crowdsourced with student committees, to the Brooklyn Public Library, serving 2.5 million residents of a borough characterized by economic disparity and cultural diversity. The Madison Public Library is shifting to a culture of innovation and collaboration with its hands-on Bubbler program, and the Santa Ana Public Library provides teens life skills, academic help and volunteer opportunities with its Circle of Mentoring. I am proud of these libraries for their willingness and tenacity to connect deeply with the people in the communities they serve.”

Before handing out the medals, the First Lady concluded her opening remarks with a glowing tribute to the power of the country’s knowledge institutions. “Day after day, year after year, our nation’s libraries and museums are here for our communities. And at the end of the day, you all don’t measure your impact by the number of books on your shelves or pieces in your exhibits, but by the young people you inspire, the lives you transform, and the impact you have every single day on your communities.”

As Brooklyn’s Best told LJ, describing her interview with IMLS when BPL was still a finalist, “I spoke from the heart about what [the library] means to me and what it does for me currently, because it’s a part of my life. And honestly, without it I don’t think the community would survive. The library is the heart of the community, I’m telling you.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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