October 16, 2017

At Your Service

In 2014, the American Community Survey reported that an estimated 19.4 million veterans were living in the United States. Libraries, both public and academic, are well positioned to serve the unique needs of this population by offering programming and meeting space, sharing veterans’ stories, and providing the community connections necessary to transition successfully from military to civilian life.

A safe space for veterans

The California State Library developed a project to bring Veterans Resource Centers (VRCs) to public libraries in the state. Working in partnership with the California Department of Veterans Affairs, this project was supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the state librarian. Staffed by volunteers and AmeriCorps members, there are now 38 VRCs open in libraries statewide. According to the Veterans Connect @ the Library website, they aim to “provide information to reintegrate California veterans into the California workforce and our communities in order to provide veterans the quality of life of other Americans.”

EVENTFUL On-site or off, events are a cornerstone of services to vets (l.–r.): the Veterans Resource Fair  sponsored by LAPL; Sen. Jon Tester speaking at a veterans’ meeting at the Billings PL, MT.  Top photo courtesy of LAPL; bottom photo by Erica Zutz

EVENTFUL On-site or off, events are a cornerstone of services to vets (l.–r.): the Veterans Resource Fair
sponsored by LAPL; Sen. Jon Tester speaking at a veterans’ meeting at the Billings PL, MT.
Top photo courtesy of LAPL; bottom photo by Erica Zutz

Edwin Rodarte, adult services librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL), coordinates the ten VRCs across his system. At press time, 2,858 veterans had been connected to a service. “The centers not only offer knowledgeable [staff] but also a multitude of library resources such as books, online tools, computer access, and specialized databases like VetNow,” Rodarte tells LJ. Increased access to the Internet is of particular value for veterans who are learning to navigate the Veterans Administration (VA) system; VRC volunteers are fully trained on federal, state, and local benefits available through the VA and other agencies. Additionally, the volunteers can make quick connections to suicide hotlines and veterans support groups.

For veterans experiencing homelessness, “our veteran centers are able to connect veterans to organizations such as ­LAHSA (Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority) and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless).” LAPL is able to integrate homeless veterans into the library’s broader program for area homeless called The Source, says Rodarte. “By leveraging a safe and trusted space where the homeless are already comfortable—the library—this event brings together more than a dozen agencies to offer services in-house that cut through a lot of the…red tape and hurdles needed to attain temporary housing or even emergency shelter.” Veterans seeking assistance with college applications can find it at VRCs, in addition to information and resources for entrepreneurship. “Many city and county agencies have resources specific to veterans that guide them through the process of starting a business while receiving…benefits such as license fee waivers and tax exemptions,” Rodarte says.

VRCs can also support families of active service members. “Family members are encouraged to visit our centers to learn about and get connected to community resources,” such as family and youth counseling centers and support groups, government agencies, and local schools, says Rodarte.

Support by Design

In addition to veterans, public libraries have a role to play in supporting those in active service, primarily by helping their families at home. As a recent School Library Journal article (Libraries Provide Stability for Military Children and Families) explains, military children can be at higher risk for negative outcomes, “such as depression, substance abuse, and even thoughts of suicide,” so establishing routine and support is critical.

A family at the Operation Military Kids mural unveiling during the Speak Out With Art Program at the Belgrade, MT, Community Library

A family at the Operation Military Kids mural unveiling during the Speak Out With Art Program at the Belgrade, MT, Community Library

Libraries can serve as a home base and offer opportunities for connection in a time of frequent change. The article notes that libraries are hosting art programs, inviting soldiers as speakers at children’s events, and scheduling programming for military homeschool families. Military- and global-themed collections and orientations can provide representation and support. Engaging with children will often lead to connecting with the whole family. “Once the parents are in the door, they may find resources that will be of use to them as well,” Jennifer Taft, reference librarian at the Harnett County Public Library, NC, and Cynthia Olney, assistant director of the National Network of Libraries of Medicine Evaluation Office, wrote on Public Libraries Online. One such resource is the American Library Association’s collaboration with the National Foundation for Credit Counseling to provide financial education programs to active duty and veteran families.

Centralized services

Many California libraries host Veterans Resource Fairs, such as the August 2016 fair held at the Fresno Public Library (FPL). Richard Mann, an FPL librarian, tells LJ that his initiative to hold the event came from a desire to “publicize and promote the VRC program.” Twelve area organizations such as the Social Security office, health-care wing of the VA, carpenters’ union, and Verizon participated, and 50 vets attended. “Several veterans filed reintegration forms, the first step…to receiving benefits from the VA,” says Mann. “About four veterans who were in danger of losing their housing came in. We are able to help them with health-care matters and referrals to emergency shelter/housing,” he adds. “An event of this type is a great opportunity to meet people who are interested in helping veterans and present library resources to those vets.”

LAPL presents resource fairs in addition to other veteran-­focused programs, says Rodarte. “We have hosted more than 120 programs [for this group],” with close to 1,500 attendees. Each April, LAPL celebrates the Month of the Military Child, which highlights the role children play in the armed forces community and honors the special concerns that youth in military families can face. Allied with the Families and Children Working Group from the University of Southern California’s Veteran Collaborative, the annual festival “showcases the resiliency of children and brings families together for a day of fun activities.”

Outreach and outposts

Library facilities are a valuable resource for local agencies looking to connect veterans through programming. Billings Public Library (BPL), MT, hosted its first Movie Night for Veterans in October. This event stemmed from the town’s involvement with Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), an AmeriCorps program. Tam Rodier, community development division staff member for the city of Billings, has supervised projects focused on veterans and active service members since July 2013 and notes that the local public library has played an important role in providing safe space for a variety of activities. VISTA member Rachel Yamahiro approached BPL about the possibility of a monthly film screening series, beginning with the HBO documentary Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. “Veterans represent 20 percent or more of the adult population in Montana,” Yamahiro notes. “I wanted to create a program that allowed veterans to network, meet one another, share self-coping strategies and resources, and see their experiences reflected on screen in a nuanced way. The [series] is intended as an alternative method to partially address the social, emotional, and recreational needs of Billings’s veterans.”

Rodier also confirms that volunteers for a 2014 veterans survey were trained at BPL, and the library served as the check-in point for volunteers conducting the survey. VISTA helped coordinate Veterans Day displays at the public library as well as at the Montana State University–Billings library. BPL also hosted a veterans’ town hall meeting in 2015 that included State Senator Jon Tester among other dignitaries.

Meanwhile, some libraries are taking their services out of the library to other spaces that feel safe for veterans. The Pierce County Library System (PCLS), Tacoma, was recently featured in Working Toward Change for the library’s efforts to help veterans reenter the civilian workforce. Library staff present Veterans Open Lab at a local veterans’ service center called Rally Point 6 (RP/6). Partnering with this agency is critical to the success of the program, according to digital literacy associate Jamie Foster, who says “most of my students haven’t walked into a library since grade school, if ever. [RP/6] is just military enough [to be] familiar and civilian enough to be comfortable.”

Sharing stories

Chris Brown, a 2016 LJ Mover & Shaker now serving as deputy county librarian with California’s Santa Clara County Library District, served as project director and grant writer for the War Ink project. With the mission of creating dialog around the experiences of veterans, the War Ink site states:

Libraries have a duty to provide resources to all citizens, but place special emphasis on serving our returning veterans—a segment of our community that can be overlooked. Libraries also collect the stories that tell us who we are as a society. The experiences of combat veterans returning home have serious cultural significance. They need to be told.

Working with Jason Deitch, a former army medic and military sociologist, Brown connected with over 30 California libraries, “nearly every vet center,” and “hundreds of tattoo shops” in order to locate interested participants and promote the effort. One of the goals of War Ink is to “provide a public space that honors and recognizes veterans, while giving them a safe forum to tell their stories,” says Brown. Some 24 veterans so far have shared their body art and stories through the online exhibit (see below for a small selection). “I think the importance of creating a bridge to connect the veteran and civilian cultures is something that cannot be overlooked. When we find common ground as people, then cooperation and community are made possible,” Brown continues, saying his hope is that the project helps veterans avoid stereo­typical casting of the hero, or the perpetrator, or as “broken people who need pity.” War Ink participant Jose Cruz reflects this desire: “It is not the seeking of acceptance or approval but rather presenting a more realistic view that defines the complex beauty of our humanity. We want to reveal and educate the nation on the true identities of the people that go off to protect the freedoms many take for granted.”

The Library of Congress’s Veterans History Project also offers a platform for libraries interested in offering their local veterans the chance to tell their stories. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCHC) applied to be an organizational partner in 2006 (making it one of more than 150 participating libraries), according to Patricia Van Skaik, manager of the genealogy and local history department. “We heard about other organizations doing it on a smaller scale,” she tells LJ, and she deemed the project a good fit as the main library was designated as a veterans’ memorial library when it was built. Van Skaik and her department promoted the project through local press and did outreach to local veterans groups to locate interested participants. “News of the project spread rapidly via word of mouth once we recruited several dedicated interviewers and interviewees who were connected to the veterans’ communities.”

The Cincinnati library’s Veterans History Project website curates film, audio, and written interviews; photograph collections; and primary source materials such as diaries and letters. “To date, the public library has conducted and posted nearly 500 interviews,” notes Van Skaik. She says many of the stories stand out in her memory, including the testimony of local veterans “whose troop was the first to arrive at Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest after Hitler fled; who played sax at the top of the Eiffel Tower with another soldier, [jazz pianist and composer] Dave Brubeck; who worked in espionage, including participation in breaking the German Enigma Machine; who served in the Tuskegee Airmen and experienced more rights and respect abroad that in [this country]; POW experiences and liberators of camps” among many other stories. According to Van Skaik, these interviews not only focus on the military experience but also provide “a richer understanding of local history and social change over time.”

Rodarte’s work with the LAPL VRCs also led to a creative project for local vets; launched in March 2016, Veterans Make Movies is a filmmaking collaboration between LAPL and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Free classes give veterans and their families access to the equipment and expertise needed to “create a compelling movie that captures [the veteran’s] unique perspective,” according to the project’s website. An online gallery collects the finished works for public viewing.

Voices of veteran librarians

Veterans who go on to seek an MLS degree have particular insight into the ways libraries can assist their compatriots, down to the way their physical spaces are designed. Sarah LeMire, first-year experience and outreach librarian at Texas A&M University Libraries, is an army veteran using her firsthand experience in the transition from military to civilian life, especially when returning to school, to inform her work in the library. “Although not all veterans will experience the same challenges, librarians should be aware that some veterans may [feel] discomfort or have difficulty relaxing in an exposed environment,” LeMire tells LJ. Military training in situational awareness can stay with veterans for years, even decades, she says. “This means that some veterans may have difficulty concentrating in a high-traffic study area or feeling comfortable in a space if someone could easily walk up behind them.” LeMire says libraries can alleviate this issue through simple strategies such as offering spaces “that allow patrons to sit with their backs to a wall, or have limited traffic flow behind the seating area…. All libraries should consider the needs of veterans and other patrons who feel [ill at ease] in an exposed environment when undergoing a library ­renovation.”

LeMire advises that while libraries are becoming more interested in serving the needs of military and veteran communities, organizations “must be careful not to alienate them by implying that veterans are ‘needier’ than other patrons. Many veterans and service members are proud of their military service and feel that it increased their ability to adapt to difficult circumstances and to overcome challenges, and they may be resentful of any implications that their service left them less resilient or capable.”

Caption to go here talking about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "Veterans Making Movies" exhibit, with two images shown here from that. Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Images from the “Veterans Make Movies” exhibit highlighting the filmmaking collaboration between LAPL and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photos courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

ORIENTED & ORGANIZED

Jesse Lopez, a Marine Corps veteran and Libraries Fellow at North Carolina State University, is also combining his military and librarian experiences to find new ways to support veterans. Lopez presented a “hunch” lightning-style talk at the 2016 Association of Research Libraries fall forum on the topic of comprehensive library orientations for new student veterans attending college for the first time. “We [as librarians] know the library is a source of empowerment, but some students may not,” Lopez says. His vision “is a friendly introduction between veterans and the whole library, a showcase of all the invaluable human expertise, collections, spaces, services, and training offered.” Other campus departments could share in the orientation, and a post-orientation reception can “serve as an opportunity for veterans to connect and build community.” Lopez jokingly warned, “Veterans can eat, so be prepared!”

He believes this type of support is particularly valuable to veterans who are by and large nontraditional students: “62 percent are first-generation college students, 85 percent are over 23, and almost 50 percent are married or have children. Their experiences, priorities, and motivations differ from their fellow undergraduates,” Lopez tells LJ. He is currently working on grant proposals to support such orientation programming in various university libraries.

Lopez also reveals the success of mobile resource apps for veterans, such as Syracuse University’s VeteransU, and sees projects like this as a perfect fit for librarians looking to increase their veterans’ services. VeteransU was developed by Syracuse University, NY, student veteran Charlie Preuss and launched in August 2015. According to the Daily Orange, Syracuse’s student newspaper, the app “features push notifications that inform users about various events on campus.” The app’s other features include RoadMap, NewsFeed, and Veteran Resources. RoadMap is a feature that “aids with the application process by making student veterans aware of the available benefits from their military service,” while NewsFeed informs users about events organized specifically for them. Veterans Resources allows the app to connect users with facilities and services focusing on local veterans. The app can also connect users personally to “improve camaraderie and team building,” according to Preuss, and “can also build motivation and assist veterans in getting the help they need to be successful academically.”

He also sees great potential in actively reaching out to veterans to engage them in the field of librarianship. “[Veterans] are intelligent, service-oriented professionals that come from all walks of life and every background,” notes Lopez. “Libraries can actively recruit veterans for a number of mentored student positions as a way to formally introduce them to our rewarding profession.”

Tools for relationship building

Van Skaik notes that libraries wishing to develop their veterans’ services will need to focus on “the development of relationships” and establishing “an atmosphere of respect and trust.” PLCHC has a dedicated librarian for its veterans history project, which allows for consistency in communication and vested relationship building. Brown notes that War Ink wouldn’t have succeeded without “an ongoing conversation with the veteran community and the insights these relationships provided along the way. The insights will come,” he says. “The important thing is to start the relationship.”

LeMire encourages libraries to “frame services and programs as efforts to give back to the veteran and military communities” and to consider engaging veterans as a way to demonstrate that they value the service and sacrifice inherent in military life. November and Veterans Day are obvious times to feature programs, “but libraries should also consider developing events or displays at other times of the year to show local veterans that they are supported year-round.” LeMire and fellow army veteran librarian Kristin Mulvihill, with the San Diego Public Library, have a forthcoming book titled Serving Those Who Served: Librarian’s Guide to Working with Veteran and Military Communities. Published by Libraries Unlimited, a division of ABC-CLIO, the February 2017 release will use the women’s military background and perspectives to “provide information and suggestions for librarians who are interested in doing more to serve veteran and military communities,” says LeMire.

A NATIONAL FRAMEWORK

At the end of September, IMLS released information on an upcoming initiative that will “strengthen the ability of libraries and museums to fulfill the unique and critical needs of veterans and military families.” Community-Based Solutions for Veterans and Military Families is a multiphase project that will culminate in the release of a white paper and “framework of strategies,” according to Janelle Brevard, IMLS director of communications and government affairs. In cooperation with national nonprofit consulting firm FSG, “the process for this initiative includes a stage of landscape assessment and gathering input” through a series of focus groups with subject matter specialists and stakeholders from veteran and broader military communities. The information gathered will inform a town hall to be held November 16–17 in San Antonio, followed by “a Twitter chat to further engage the public the week of November 21,” says Brevard. The data will be analyzed and prepared for the white paper release as early as January 2017. “Our effort is designed to engage a broad and diverse swath of libraries and museums [working] in veterans’ programming as well as the veterans and military families…and related organizations,” Brevard tells LJ, “so that opportunities to better serve…may all be examined, explored, and potentially scaled.” A national approach is only fitting for serving a community that touches every state—and serves them all. In the meantime, local libraries need not wait to reach out and start building relationships with the veterans on the home front in their hometown.

Under Our Skin

War Ink, an innovative project from Santa Clara, CA, librarian Chris Brown, has won accolades such as the library world’s own John Cotton Dana Award and the Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities, among others. Through the project, the veterans pictured here and 20 more display their tattoos while relating their experiences and what they meant. Photos by Johann Wolf.

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April Witteveen is a Community Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library system in Central Oregon

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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