WEST WARWICK — The West Warwick Public Library was announced on Thursday by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) as a finalist for the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries.
Nominated for the award by U.S. Rep. James Langevin, West Warwick Public Library is the first Rhode Island library to be chosen as an IMLS National Medal finalist since Providence Public Library in 2001.
While the award serves to recognize the ongoing excellence of the nation’s best museums and libraries, IMLS Director Crosby Kemper said, this year it also highlights “their extraordinary efforts through the pandemic, the recession, the racial justice protests, and national divisions to serve, heal, and bring together our communities.”
The finalists include 15 museums and 15 libraries whose community impacts have been significant. What the finalists all have in common, West Warwick Public Library Director Colin McCullough said Thursday, is their commitment to public service.
“I think everybody here is very excited,” McCullough said of his staff learning that the library was named among the 30 finalists.
McCullough credits the library’s selection in part to its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Rather than having the response to this pandemic of sort of pulling the covers over our head, we addressed it head-on, and did so quite quickly in a way that maintained the safety of our staff and of our patrons,” he said. “If our doors couldn’t be open, we were keen to be still offering services.”
The West Warwick Public Library was among the first in the state to offer curbside pickup, so that even as the building, itself, was closed to the public, residents could still get their hands on new books. That service has remained an option for those nervous about entering public spaces.
The library also worked quickly to take the necessary safety precautions in order to reopen its doors, welcoming community members back for certain services early last summer.
Librarians in West Warwick also made a strong effort, as the pandemic was causing businesses and institutions to shutter last March, to bring the library to residents in the safety of their own homes.
Much of the library’s face-to-face programming was brought to the web, with virtual events and resources made available for patrons of all ages — for example, among its most popular programs are its role-playing games, and within weeks of the pandemic taking hold, several of the library’s Dungeons & Dragons campaigns were successfully moved to online formats.
The senior tech club, which has transformed into more of a social hour, was also brought online, giving senior citizens a regular opportunity to catch up via Zoom with their friends and neighbors. Just as many people have been attending those events virtually as did in person pre-pandemic, McCullough said.
“I think we’ve been very agile in making those kinds of changes,” he added.
The library also adapted its summer lunch program, serving free, well-balanced meals to kids to go, rather than to enjoy onsite.
“We ended up serving the same number of kids that we would have had it been face-to-face,” McCullough said.
The library has added various digital resources, as well, offering ebook and movie rentals through Hoopla, for example.
Customer service hasn’t only been a priority for local librarians over the last 12 months, however. Treating patrons with consideration has always been a goal, McCullough said.
Whereas some other libraries have adopted self-checkout systems, for instance, the West Warwick Public Library has intentionally stuck with face-to-face checkouts.
“Having someone check out a book represents an opportunity for some human contact, for some friendly conversation,” he said. “I think that’s what our face to the community is: it’s one of being welcoming and friendly, to the extent that the librarians know a lot of the patrons. When they come in, they’re going to see a friendly face.”
But, McCullough suspects, it’s not just the way in which it treats its patrons, or how it has adapted to the pandemic, that make West Warwick Public Library stand out.
“For our resources to be recognized in this way is, I think, a tribute to the staff here, and to their dedication,” he said. “I have a great staff, a great team of people who work together very collaboratively.”
McCullough lauded the library staff for its creativity and commitment to inclusivity, adding that he’s “delighted” for those attributes to have been acknowledged on a national level.
“They deserve this,” he said. “It’s been a very difficult year for libraries everywhere, and they have responded in the best possible way.”
To celebrate this honor, IMLS is encouraging West Warwick Public Library’s community members to share stories, memories, pictures and videos on social media as part of the “Share Your Story” campaign, using the #IMLSmedals hashtag, and to engage with IMLS on Facebook and Twitter.
National Medal winners will be announced in late spring, and representatives from winning institutions will be honored for their contributions during a virtual ceremony this summer.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support for the nation's libraries and museums, supporting and empowering America’s museums, libraries and related organizations through grantmaking, research and policy development. To learn more, visit www.imls.gov.