The Public Health Crisis Management Playbook for Archives, Libraries, and Museums presents a set of guiding processes, resources, and tools to aid cultural heritage institutions when planning for, navigating through, and recovering from a significant public health emergency. This playbook contains information for any library, archive, or museum staff who will take part in a crisis management planning or communications team. It will especially be of use for those in leadership, management, and other similar decision-making roles.
To produce this playbook, the REopening Archives, Libraries, and Museums (REALM) project team gathered input from representatives of archives, libraries, museums, and allied organizations during a series of online forums in early 2022, and the REALM team also consulted information resources developed by subject area experts and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This playbook is available for use in two formats: as a web page and as a PDF document. Both versions of the document have interactive elements, such as tables where users can type notes. The web version will temporarily retain notes locally in the playbook online only. Downloading a PDF version of the playbook will not include any annotations made to the web version.
This playbook is not a detailed step-by-step guide or a comprehensive, one-size-fits-all approach to crisis management. Your organization will need to develop a plan that is appropriate for your local community and your institution’s mission, facility, and staff.
The publication includes four chapters and an appendix covering the following topics:
During a public health care crisis, archives, libraries, and museums will deal with many
unforeseeable circumstances. Amid this uncertainty, leaders will need to continue ensuring their
organizational missions and longer-term survival while simultaneously focusing on the immediate
safety and welfare of staff and visitors. Perhaps the most essential element of crisis leadership is
clear and trustworthy communication while also creating and fostering healthy and supportive work
The following guidance offers an outline for building a crisis management team and for
and maintaining internal and external communications. The chapter outlines approaches to crisis
are trauma-informed, supports conflict management, and centers diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Invaluable during an emergency, a crisis management team is most effective when it is in
it is needed. To prepare for a future crisis, the team can meet regularly to discuss potential
policies and procedures that provide decision-making clarity and action steps, and practice
or cross-role communication. Below are considerations for building and maintaining a crisis
Below is a crisis management team roster outline of key roles, which you can use to document your
primary and back-up people to fill those roles. Consider how you might shape this roster to best
suit the needs of your institution, and select people who offer the experience and skills to meet
those needs. Clearly communicate the roles and responsibilities to each member of the team.
Organizations that issue messages and information that convey empathy, openness, dedication, and
competence are more likely to maintain and build trust with their employees and communities during a
crisis. With these factors in mind, the following considerations and checklists are intended to
serve as a starting point when building a crisis communications plan.
The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies key communication principles in the
Communication Guidelines that can be useful when creating a crisis communications plan. They
have been adapted for your use below.
The key principle of disease outbreak messaging is to communicate in ways that build and maintain
trust—such as frequency, transparency, and citing reliable sources of information—between your
organization, the people you serve, and your staff. Without trust, people will be less likely to
believe, or act on, the information being conveyed.
Be proactive with communications alerting those affected by policy changes, both internally and
externally. Announcing changes early—even with incomplete information—can prevent rumors and
misinformation. For more guidance regarding managing risk assessment, information gathering, and
planning during uncertain times, see chap. 3: Crisis decision-making and risk management.
Maintaining the trust of staff and the public throughout a crisis requires ongoing transparency,
including timely and accurate information (even if information is not fully complete) on a real or potential risk and its management. As new developments occur over the course of a crisis, they should be communicated proactively. Transparency between your organization’s communicators, the public, and partners promotes improved information gathering, risk assessment, and decision-making during a crisis.
Understanding risk perceptions, views, and concerns of both staff and your institution’s community
is critical to effective communication. People’s existing beliefs and practices will shape how they
understand and perceive a given risk, impacting their openness to behavior changes necessary to
Public communications during emergencies represent an enormous challenge and demand sound planning
to adhere to the principles described above. Use the tools and recommendations in this chapter to
identify roles, decision-making processes, priorities, and more before a crisis arrives.
A communications plan should define key communications goals and describe the various actions
required to achieve these objectives. Depending on the nature of the emergency and the resources
available, one person could perform several of these tasks, or many people could be assigned a
single task. Below is a high-level description of roles based on the WHO’s recommended
This role is responsible for the development of crisis communications objectives, strategies, and
tactics. Consider including this person as the communications liaison in a crisis management
A member of the crisis management team, this role helps to align and coordinates key objectives,
activities, and results of that team with the crisis communications planning team. This role also helps to establish and coordinate communications with partner organizations that are providing information or other resources during the crisis.
This role transforms crisis information into messages, Q and A documents, and other communications
tools that help staff and the public assess risks, take protective actions, and know where to go for
additional information and help.
This role coordinates clearance and approval for the release of crisis-related information,
communications materials, and other similar documents.
This role provides information to staff and the public, including interacting with media and field
inquiries from news organizations.
This role ensures that the latest information regarding the crisis is up to date on websites and
social media accounts, that web traffic and trends are noted, and that any online questions receive
This role gathers and analyzes risk perceptions, knowledge gaps, and potential nonmedical barriers
to recommended public health measures and reflects findings back into the communications
Working closely with the listening role, this role assesses and measures the communications
processes and their outcomes. The institution can use the assessment data to improve communications
response efforts for current and future crises.
Below is a crisis communications team roster outline of key roles, which you can use to document
your primary and back-up people to fill those roles. Consider how you might shape this roster to
best suit the needs of your institution and select people who offer the experience and skills to
meet those needs. Clearly communicate the roles and responsibilities to each member of the team.
A communications plan should address communicating with three audiences: staff, the public, and
external partners. Below are suggested first steps in creating a communications plan that addresses
these three audiences.
Prior to a crisis:
During a crisis:
Although the topic of self-care has become more visible as an impact of the COVID-19
pandemic, times of
crisis can accelerate staff burnout unless organizations place staff well-being and mental health
forefront of every decision.
Common recommendations for avoiding burnout include setting boundaries, practicing mindful
work habits, and
learning to advocate for yourself. This puts the burden on the individual. For real change to
institutional leadership must make intentional shifts in the workplace so that employees have the
support to practice these wellness principles.
The following guidance includes frameworks from the Washington
State Department of Health’s tips on building resilience, the CDC’s guidance on coping
stress, and the National Center
The following describes behavioral health impacts on staff and community members.
Includes tiredness of body and mind and lower motivation because of sustained work stress or
Burnout often occurs when there is an unequal balance between the demands of the job and the
that a person has.
Emotional and physical tiredness that can lead to a decreased ability to empathize or feel
others. Also described as secondary traumatic stress.
Experiencing strong feelings of guilt, shame, and anger about the frustration that comes from
the kind of care or service that an employee or visitor wants and expects.
The best way to address these common concerns in a workplace is to create support systems and
that develop resilience and resilience factors.
The process of adapting during hard times, trauma, tragedy, threats, or major sources of
involves changing behaviors, thoughts, and actions to meet the needs of a given situation.
Conditions that help a person survive and recover from a crisis or trauma. These can include
and adaptability, connection to others, purpose, and hope.
To build resilience in your workplace, identify and implement these four resilience factors
on both the
organizational and individual levels:
As national and organizational responses to a crisis unfold, a sense of calm, focus, and
from leadership plays a significant role in easing the stress of their team. Because a public
health crisis can
be an extended, infrequent event, it may be helpful to remember that organizational strategies
will need to
change. This means establishing both order and reassurance early on.
It is also important to remember that in the intermediate and long-term phases of a public
increased communication and willingness to put new organizational strategies and policies in
leader vision and regular input from employees—is essential for organizational and employee
Leadership during a crisis is vital to libraries, archives, and museums, and a leader’s own
well-being is a
paramount consideration to a job done safely and well. A leader’s example as a role model can also
profound effect on how staff value their own self-care.
Originating in the fields of health and social services, trauma-informed care frameworks can hold great value for libraries, archives, and museums. Empathetic service, positive visitor encounters, and a more trusting and equitable workplace for employees are only a few benefits that trauma-informed practices can offer.
The following sections include information and guidance from the US
Department of Health and Human Services and the Institute
on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care.
Trauma-informed care shifts the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” A trauma-informed approach to care acknowledges that there needs to be a complete picture of a person’s life situation—past and present—to provide effective care services. Individual trauma can result from an event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.
Trauma-informed care includes:
Key components of trauma-informed care:
The details of each employer's plan to return, or re-return, to the workplace during a crisis
will look different, but there are key issues that most will need to prepare for:
A health crisis will likely impact your workplace both in the short and long term. This
section will help your institution plan accordingly. The following checklists and information
includes guidance from
the Society for Human Resource
Management (SHRM) and the Occupational Safety and Health
Use data to decide how and when to safely return to work, and prepare facilities by
addressing the “who, how, and when”: who returns, how they will return, and when
Employers should ensure that their workplaces are as safe as possible. Employees and visitors
may have fears of returning to “business as usual”; preparing for returning to workplaces and
communicating that safety is a top priority will help to allay fears and increase trust internally
and in your community. Begin with the following steps:
Depending on the crisis, safety measures may include:
Plan for how and when employees can return to the workplace to create an organized and
For instance, all employees returning on the same day at the same time could be overwhelming and
unsafe. Additional aspects to consider include:
Layoffs or furloughs may impact employee benefits. Whether employees remained on the
employer's benefits plans or not, certain notices or actions may be required to stay compliant.
Communicate these changes to employees as soon as possible. Consider reviewing the following issues:
Consider addressing the following:
Actions to consider include:
Establishing a clear communications plan will allow employees to understand how the organization
plans to reopen. More guidance on communications can be found in 1.2 Developing a crisis communications plan. Topics to cover in communications may include:
Institutions will likely need to update or create new policies to reflect the changes that occur
during a crisis. Some examples include:
Institutions with unionized workforces may have additional considerations, including:
A public health crisis includes an abundance of unknowns, changes in work patterns, and external
stressors, all of which can lead to an increase in discord among staff. Be prepared for new
workplace conflict issues that may arise during a crisis.
The following guidance is adapted from a Forbes article about the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic had on workplace conflict. Understanding
some of the bigger themes in workplace conflict during a crisis can help leaders better support
staff. Those issues may include the following:
Crisis-driven changes to people’s lives can profoundly affect their attitudes and priorities. These
changes can sometimes result in employees coming into conflict with the organization that employs
During times of crisis, you can expect an increase in team mediation or multiparty disputes. Some
will be driven by specific crisis-related issues, such as colleagues not respecting safety
protocols; others may be indirectly related, such as a teammate’s behavior on video calls. You can
also expect more team conflict related to diversity, as employees may feel that they are not heard
fairly or equally. In addition, managers may feel they are under more pressure, from supervising
remote teams to dealing with hybrid working or a return to the workplace. For more guidance on
conflicts relating to diversity, see 1.5: Centering diversity. For more
guidance on returning to work, see 1.3.3: Staff safety and returning to the workplace.
On an interpersonal level, conflict may arise from feeling overworked and overwhelmed, especially
for those facing additional at-home caring responsibilities. There may also be more disputes related
to mental health during a crisis as existing mental health issues are exacerbated. For more guidance
on addressing self-care and trauma-informed management practices, see 1.3: Preparing for human resource needs.
Conflict is best managed within an open communication environment, where employees are encouraged
to talk about the issues they are facing and feel their concerns are heard. Aim to understand what
employees are saying by asking questions and focusing on their perception of the problem. Always
have at least two management personnel in the room when speaking with an employee. When a workplace
is unionized, a union representative may also request to be present.
The following steps for resolving conflict situations are drawn from UC
Berkeley’s tips for resolving conflict situations.
Honest and clear communication play an important role in the resolution process. Acquaint
yourself with what's happening and be open about the problem.
Some feelings of anger and/or hurt usually accompany conflict situations. Before any kind of
problem-solving can take place, these emotions should be expressed and acknowledged.
What is the stated problem? What is the negative impact on work or relationships? Are differing
personality styles part of the problem? Meet with employees separately first to learn about the
The goal of conflict resolution is to reach a solution that everyone can live with rather than
to decide which person is right or wrong. Looking first for needs, rather than solutions, is a
powerful tool for generating win/win options. To discover needs, begin by finding out why people
want the solutions they initially proposed. Understanding the advantages that their solutions
have for them helps to discover their needs.
If the conflict is causing a disruption and remains unresolved, you may need to explore other
avenues. An outside facilitator may be able to offer insights into solving the problem. In some
cases, the conflict becomes a performance issue and may become a topic for coaching sessions,
performance appraisals, or disciplinary action.
Too often, conflict is viewed as negative. But it is through the process of speaking up that
individuals, teams, and organizations inspire, innovate, and grow. A silver lining of dealing with a
crisis is that it offers leaders an opportunity to support those in conflict to speak up in a more
informal way and find solutions to seemingly intractable situations.
An equitable and inclusive workplace led by staff who bring a diverse range of lived experiences
will be in a position of strength during a crisis, as these factors make an organization more
resilient, more innovative, and more connected to the communities they serve. Organizations can
promote diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) by creating an action plan and remaining committed to
the plan even when crisis hits. The following information and guidance serve only as a starting
point in addressing DEI in libraries, archives, and museums. This work will require further
research, continuous planning, and active implementation.
DEI awareness includes being mindful of:
The following goals and strategies have been adapted from the American Library Association’s
Strategic Direction on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, but they can be applied to any institution
type. For additional guidance, we recommend visiting ala.org/advocacy/diversity and racialequitytools.org to access tools, research,
tips, curricula, and more.
The beginnings of a DEI action plan for libraries, archives, and museums can include:
Show your commitment to employing and supporting individuals from broadly diverse racial,
ethnic, gender, cultural, and other backgrounds by publishing an official, public-facing DEI
Use structured processes for meetings, interviews, or performance evaluations to avoid biased
Spotlight new people and reward unique skills and ideas to remain inclusive in leadership
When hiring, seek out employees who have diverse experiences and will be an asset to your
inclusivity goals. Conduct DEI training with existing staff.
Encourage employees to interact with each other on a personal, human level. Cohesive, inclusive
workforces thrive when employees feel accepted and valued.
Racial Equity Tools is an online platform designed to support individuals and groups working to achieve racial equity. The site describes core concepts, such as structural racism, intersectionality, racial identity development, and anti-racism. Racial Equity Tools stresses that groups interested in racial equity must invest in shared language and values so that staff and leaders will work together to move their organizations forward.
Most libraries, archives, and museums operate in some kind of physical space that is open to
visitors. Those physical sites present distinct challenges during a public health crisis. A plan for
how to manage your facilities and operations during a crisis helps the organization be more
resilient and better able to continue fulfilling its missions. In this chapter, you’ll find
considerations for assessing and prioritizing collections management, physical public and staff
configurations, building mechanical systems, and safety protocols.
Certain aspects of institutional operations are predictable regardless of the details of a
particular crisis. Having a business continuity plan for these standard operations reduces the
number of decisions that need to be made during a crisis. Developing the plan might be a good
project for a crisis management team (see 1.1: Building a crisis management team).
Assess the following when creating a business continuity plan.
These might include:
Although details of each crisis will vary, it may be helpful to review your organization’s COVID-19 response to better understand which operational functions are possible during a public health crisis.
For more on this topic, see 1.3.3: Staff safety and returning to the workplace.
Identify who will be responsible for communicating the plan (see 1.2: Developing a crisis communications plan)
Identify who will be responsible for maintaining the plan (see 1.1: Building a crisis management team).
The collections management needs of libraries, archives, and museums vary widely. That said, every
institution with collections should consider the following when creating a crisis management plan:
Is remote monitoring of temperature, relative humidity, and other conditions an option? If so,
do the appropriate staff members have the necessary technology, both on-site and at home, to
conduct remote monitoring? Which staff members will visit the collection and when? How should
they document the collection’s condition?
What collections work can be continued remotely? During the COVID-19 pandemic, many
institutions performed database maintenance as a way to continue collections work remotely. This
may not always be possible, however, depending on institutional policies. Develop your
collections maintenance plan in accordance with your parent institution’s remote work policies.
When staff return to the facility, how will work time and space be allocated? Although each
crisis will have its own health guidelines and parameters, planning how to maintain physical
distance ahead of time is prudent. Many collections storage spaces and work areas are tight, so
assess whether the space allows staff to be sufficiently distant or whether other controls
should be used, like rotating shifts (see 2.4: Adaptable spaces and workflows).
If changes to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems or practices are on the table, consider the impact of changes in temperature and relative humidity, the introduction of outside air, post-exposure sanitation, and possible contaminants or pests (see 2.3: Mechanical systems in buildings).
Review your organization’s COVID-19 approach to public access to the collection. Which changes were successful? What can be learned from that experience and established as future crisis-response practices?
If your institution’s mission includes collecting objects that document contemporary life and issues, you may have the added challenge of documenting the crisis as you live through it. Does the necessary physical and digital storage to receive these objects already exist? Can it be added?
Building mechanical systems in libraries, archives, and museums may have specialized applications, such as in conservation or collections storage spaces. However, the basic function is always to provide a safe and comfortable environment for occupants, equipment, and the building itself. For people without a facilities background, it can be helpful to compare building mechanical systems to body systems to better understand their roles (the following analogy is inspired by the University of Oregon building systems course).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, HVAC systems came to the forefront of cultural heritage
organizations’ concerns because SARS-CoV-2 is an airborne virus. Many staff found themselves needing
to learn about HVAC systems to understand the health implications of their institution’s existing
systems and the possible interventions to improve indoor air exchange and reduce potential for virus
transmission inside the facility. For those organizations without dedicated facilities staff,
establishing a working understanding of the building’s mechanical systems can help with resiliency
and faster decision-making during a public health crisis. Ask the following questions to gain
familiarity with your building’s key systems:
Spaces or services that are identified as necessary to a library, archive, or museum’s critical
operational functions (see 2.1: Establishing a business continuity plan) will likely need to be
adapted to meet changing health guidelines and standards. The adaptations needed will depend on the
specific conditions of the crisis, but the following considerations can aid assessment of how
resilient current spaces and workflows are and how they might be modified to be more adaptable
during a crisis.
Where do visitors and staff gather? What are the options to either permanently eliminate those
bottlenecks or temporarily modify the space during a crisis? Options might include relocating
fixtures and furnishings, introducing barriers like stanchions, or directing traffic with staff
Can entrances and exits be strategically opened and closed to create one-way or other traffic
patterns that reduce contact between people? Can barriers or visual cues be introduced to
encourage this behavior? Documenting these options ahead of time will minimize the
problem-solving that must happen during moments of crisis.
Are there simple changes that can be addressed to make spaces more adaptable before the next
Can certain elements be modular so that they can be adjusted easily and quickly should there be a need for more spacing or better flow?
Are surfaces that staff or visitors touch able to be cleaned, or disinfected when contaminated?
What are the cleaning protocols for fixtures and furnishings? Where are high-touch areas? Can
changes be made to make it simpler or easier to clean or disinfect surfaces?
If your institution has access to outdoor space, what kind of furniture or equipment would be
needed to support outdoor programs or gathering space for visitors or staff?
Who needs to be in the building to achieve critical operational functions (see 2.1: Establishing a business continuity plan)? Are there some functions that are not space-dependent?
Clarify who needs to be in the building and who does not to help shape crisis work plans.
If some work can be accomplished outside of the building, ensure that the staff working at home
are provided with the resources necessary to do their work. Be mindful that inequity can be
exacerbated by depending on staff to provide their own office equipment, such as a computer or
highspeed internet to work from home, especially in times of crisis.
Minimizing physical proximity of staff can reduce risk of transmitting disease. Having this
conversation ahead of time can reduce the number of logistical decisions the team must make
during a public health crisis.
As a field, libraries, archives, and museums have extensive experience with program and service
development, but serving the local community in times of crisis can require creative adaptations to
an institution’s standard service model. In her thesis Museums
& Community Resilience: Improving Post-Crisis Outreach in Latinx Communities by Combining
Library and Museum Practices, Sua Lorena Mendez identifies common practices in case
studies of successful library crisis responses that may provide a useful framework for thinking
about crisis-responsive program and service development.
Below, we list Mendez’s observed practice, define the relevant term, and provide self-reflection
questions that can help your institution implement this framework.
Community acknowledgement — A library or museum’s capacity to acknowledge its community’s
immediate needs during and after a crisis or emergency, both in general and in specific communities.
Information communication — A library or museum’s capacity to offer information- or
reference-related services for educational purposes or to connect community members with emergency
Supply distribution — A library or museum’s capacity to go beyond traditional practices to
provide emergency supplies or resources (food, water, coats, and hot meals).
Memorialization and documentation — A library or museum’s capacity to memorialize victims
and survivors of tragedy through a shared narrative, object collection, or exhibition development to
aid in communal grief healing.
Safe-space facilitation — A library or museum’s capacity to provide community members with secure space to foster feelings of normalcy, comfort, and safety after a traumatic event.
Using partnerships — A common use of collaborative community partnerships across categories.
When developing crisis-responsive programs and services, consider:
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the International
Council of Museums recommended building on past successful programs and services and
adapting these to the new conditions of the crisis. Building on existing strengths can maintain
staff confidence during times of uncertainty and provide a sense of stability.
If we must do things differently anyway because of crisis, try something new. Do this
deliberately with what EmcArts calls SERIs
— Small Experiments with Radical Intent. The small scale allows for low overall risk, giving
staff permission to try things outside of their usual practice. Innovate and see what will work
best in the current context.
If being indoors is no longer possible, what are the options for moving outdoors? For more on
physical changes to workspaces, see 2.4 Adaptable spaces and workflows.
Is your institution in dialogue with the communities it is seeking to serve with these programs
and services? How is your institution determining those communities’ needs? Consider cultivating a public servant mindset as part of public health crisis planning.
A public health crisis creates challenging decision-making environments that can upend an organization’s day-to-day processes. The uncertainties caused by knowledge gaps place additional pressures on staff, and living in an era of information overload makes it harder to navigate the overwhelming amount of information encountered every day. The following sections address combating misinformation, prioritizing public health practices, and conducting risk assessments to help support libraries, archives, and museums in decision-making during a public health crisis.
Decision-making is the process of selecting one course of action from alternative options. At its core, crisis response involves making decisions based on the best information available at the time and turning those decisions into direct action that controls responses and minimizes the impacts of the crisis on an organization.
As a public health crisis unfolds, decision-making must often be made amid fast-changing circumstances and with information that is flawed and incomplete.
The article “Managing Uncertainty in the COVID-19 Era” by Rutter, Wolpert, and Greenhalgh offers the following guidance for decision-making during a crisis:
The following areas of consideration can help establish processes and aid in strategic decision-making during a crisis.
Situational awareness is the perception and understanding of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, and the potential threat they may have to a person’s health and safety. Determine the impacts of the crisis on your organization, including the issues, the risks, what may happen, and what is currently happening.
Clarify the aim and objectives of your organization’s crisis response and the organizational values and priorities that inform it.
Who will participate in the decision-making process? See 1.1 Building a crisis management team for more guidance.
Maintain close coordination with other agencies and partners during the crisis. Identify key partners and agencies that can provide important information regarding a public health crisis as the situation evolves. See 4. Resource networks for more guidance.
Whether as a librarian working at a reference desk, a museum director overseeing a team of employees, or an archivist charged with maintaining a collection, staff responsibilities often include helping people to provide reliable, accurate information. This role becomes increasingly important during a public health crisis, a flourishing environment for health misinformation and disinformation.
The following guidance includes edited excerpts from the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General’s Toolkit for Addressing Health Misinformation.
Misinformation is information that is false, inaccurate, or misleading according to the best available evidence at the time. It’s important to keep in mind that many people who share misinformation aren’t trying to misinform. Instead, they may be raising a concern, making sense of conflicting information, or seeking answers to honest questions. However, misinformation can sometimes be spread intentionally to serve a malicious purpose, such as to trick people into believing in something for financial gain or political advantage. This is usually called “disinformation.”
Why are people so commonly susceptible to being influenced by misinformation and why is it so tempting to share? Common motivations for sharing misinformation include:
Common types of health misinformation
A lot of misinformation isn’t completely false or “fake.” It can be information or imagery that lacks context; something that has a “kernel of truth” to it becomes much more believable. Look out for:
Consider the following response strategies when encountering health misinformation in your community:
Point to credible sources
Don’t publicly shame the misinformed
Use inclusive language
Public health aims to provide people with the right to be healthy and live in conditions that support health for all. The CDC’s public health approach emphasizes input from diverse sectors including education, social services, justice, and policy. Libraries, archives, and museums can be important partners in supporting public health by promoting health literacy to their staff and communities both before and during a public health crisis.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) defines health literacy as “the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions.” According to the HHS, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 90 million adults in the United States had low health literacy. The cost of limited health literacy can include more emergency room visits, more preventable hospital admissions, and populations being less likely to act on public health alerts and use preventative measures and services.
The following guidance is adapted from the HHS and the CDC to help institutions ensure that health literacy is in place with employees and the community before and during a public health crisis.
Actions to support health literacy
Help your team and community be better prepared to understand and interpret public health data and policies by becoming familiar with existing resources, building new connections, and creating and sharing effective content.
The CDC and the National Library of Medicine provide free training resources, and the National Network of Libraries of Medicine (NNLM) provides a free toolkit to raise awareness of how libraries, archives, and museums support health literacy in their communities. Local health officials and public health organizations can also help your organization understand community public health needs. For more guidance on networking, see 4: Resource networks.
Creating effective health literacy content
Below is a checklist of strategies outlined in health.gov’s Health Literacy Online for creating effective health literacy content for your community:
Display content clearly
The first step for libraries, archives, and museums to address risk during a public health crisis is to strive to understand it. In addition to the facilities-specific considerations discussed in 2. Facilities and operations, a risk assessment should (adapted from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Ready.gov):
What are the parameters of the public health crisis? What hazards does it pose for your staff and the public? Does the crisis include technological hazards, such as power and IT outages, and supply chain interruptions?
Vulnerabilities are assets that will be at risk should the above hazards occur. These may be tangible, such as staff, buildings, collections, systems, and equipment, or intangible, like the institution’s reputation, regulatory or contractual obligations, or supply chain access.
For each hazard, what opportunities are there for prevention or mitigation? What barriers does your institution face in implementing these interventions?
Based on possible hazards and known vulnerabilities, hazards can be ranked by probability and the magnitude of their impact should they occur. This ranking can allow an institution to prioritize specific prevention or mitigation interventions in its crisis management planning. The Risk Assessment Table from Ready.gov and the Risk Evaluation and Planning Program Risk Prioritization Worksheet from the American Institute for Conservation are both useful tools for this exercise.
Once risks are clearly identified, they can be addressed through planning. (For more on the content of operations-specific planning, see 2.1: Establishing a business continuity plan.)
Scenario planning uses scenarios—imagined situations with varied conditions and circumstances—to anticipate various possible responses an institution might have. The exercise makes crisis management planning tangible instead of theoretical, while also building confidence and adaptability among staff. For institutions frequently involved in storytelling, scenario planning can feel like a comfortable fit.
A blog post by Elizabeth Merritt from the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) during COVID-19 provides a model for how to use this approach in your own institution. In response to the onset of the pandemic, Merritt created scenarios for three potential levels of impact and invited readers to plan their responses to each level. The same model could be followed at the outset of a future public health crisis, or a fictional public health crisis could be imagined as a planning exercise.
To facilitate a scenario planning exercise, imagine a future (and fictional) public health crisis that might strike your community. Using AAM’s COVID-19 blog post as a model, develop low-, medium-, and high-impact scenarios for your institution. A low-impact scenario might include public concern and economic effects. A medium-impact scenario could include some residents impacted by the health crisis and restrictions on community events. A high-impact scenario could include national restrictions on travel, gatherings, and public spaces, with widespread health impacts. With the institution’s crisis management team (see 1.1: Building a crisis management team), examine each scenario and encourage participants to:
Planning a detailed response to low-, medium-, and high-impact scenarios can surface additional hazards, vulnerabilities, and prevention and mitigation strategies not previously considered in an institution’s risk assessment (see 3.4: Risk assessment and management). This can lead to clearer and more effective planning.
Risk assessment and scenario planning exercises can surface issues that will need focused attention, such as planning for the legal and financial impacts of crisis. An institution can be ready for crisis-specific legal and financial concerns by taking the following steps before a crisis is underway (adapted from resources from the American Alliance of Museums):
Performing a financial crisis organizational self-assessment, such as the one provided by Foraker Group, can help clarify an institution’s financial resiliency and identify issues that should be addressed before crisis hits.
Determine what cash reserves may dramatically change in costs and/or revenue occur. How long will those reserves sustain critical operational functions? For a discussion on identifying critical operational functions, see 2.1: Establishing a business continuity plan.
Grants, sponsorships, union contracts, and other agreements may create performance obligations for the institution. Identify obligations and what penalties are associated with cancelling or deferring them. Are they documented in a central location that can be referenced during a crisis?
Confirm the legal and financial protections the institution has. Which staff member is the point of contact for insurance providers and can answer insurance-related questions that arise during a crisis or during crisis management planning?
Create a list of resources that your organization can turn to for legal and financial support during a crisis. This list should be drafted before a crisis and reviewed and updated regularly.
Libraries, archives, and museums exist within a diverse network, where each institution is connected to other organizations in multiple ways, such as by location, professional sector, governance model, formal partnerships, and informal collaboration. These organizational networks become critical during a public health crisis. Leveraging connections within a network can strengthen an institution’s capacity and extend its reach and impact, as well as offer emotional and moral support to people working through a crisis. However, resource networks must be planned and maintained with clear intention to reach their full potential.
This chapter includes resources for identifying, establishing, and sustaining networks. The strongest collaborative networks are often those formed before a crisis is underway, although new networks are often created in response to an emerging situation. Investment in cultivating collaborative networks can contribute to each partner’s crisis resilience. Community Tool Box’s Building and Sustaining Relationships toolkit offers resources for developing professional relationship-building and networking skills.
Several recommendations shared in this chapter are synthesized from REALM project findings drawn from those working in archives, libraries, museums, foundations, and the public health sector. These REALM community discussions shared how resource networks and other collaborative partnerships can bolster the capacity of cultural heritage organizations to respond to a public health crisis.
For the purposes of this chapter, “resource network” refers to three or more organizations working together toward a common purpose. Sometimes these are referred to as collaborative networks to distinguish them from policy or governance networks. Members of a collaborative network are referred to as “partners.” Successful collaborative networks require careful care and maintenance, but that work is rewarded with many potential benefits that can become critical during a crisis. The following list, adapted from Inter-Organizational Networks: A Review of the Literature to Inform Practice, describes potential benefits of collaborative networks for their members:
While working to identify potential partners, consider which of these benefits would be useful to your organization and how your organization can contribute to the network. Understanding what is gained from partnering provides clarity at every step along the way, from identifying potential partners, to defining common goals, determining the roles and responsibilities of each organization, and deciding whether to maintain a network.
A crisis may spur an institution to partner with a wide variety of organizations, such as schools, health and human services providers, community-based organizations, or government agencies. But the framework for identifying partners during the crisis remains the same: Who is trying to address the same (or related) problems for the same audiences?
When compiling your list of possible partners during a public health crisis, consider the following categories of organizations (adapted from the WHO):
Public health organizations
Nonpublic health organizations
Consider which partners your institution might need most during a public health crisis to strengthen its capacity to adapt and respond to the situation. Past experiences, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can provide clues to the types of connections a future public health crisis might demand. It can be beneficial to develop these relationships prior to a crisis so that familiarity and communication is already established, and partners can be easily called upon when needed. These relationships can be cultivated formally, such as through creating a collaborative network focused on some initiative of mutual interest, or informally, by working deliberately to create personal connections using tips from the Community Tool Box’s Building and Sustaining Relationships checklist and toolkit.
Scan your region and profession for preexisting networks that can connect your organization to potential partners. These may be formally organized networks, such as a state library or museum association’s membership, or informal, such as a group of cultural institution leaders that meets regularly to share news and information resources.
Ultimately, partnerships between institutions are sparked by and rely upon relationships between individuals. Some examples of strategies for creating connections include:
Actor mapping is an exercise used to identify specific entities within a system and their relationship to each other; it is a process to understand who makes up a system. In the context of crisis management, this system might be a specific field, such as libraries or museums, or a physical area, such as a city, county, or state. "Stakeholder mapping” is another term for this activity; however, “actor map” is used here to be inclusive of entities that are not stakeholders.
The following list has been adapted from FSG’s Guide to Actor Mapping and Systems Innovation Network’s Actor Mapping: A Field Guide. Actor mapping can help:
Identify the key actors in a particular system. What are those actors’ needs, assets, and relationships within the identified system?
Clarify the actors’ roles and levels of influence. Determine the actors’ relationships to each other and to your organization. What opportunities for partnership exist within the system?
Examine how information and/or resources pass between actors. Is this exchange mutual or one way? Where are gaps or blockages? Use this information to consider opportunities for improving communication with partners.
Identify which actors should be involved if changes within the system occur. Where can levels of influence or types of relationships assist new changes or initiatives?
FSG’s Guide to Actor Mapping outline steps for creating an actor map that situates your organization as part of a network. The guide also provides instructions on how to facilitate an actor mapping session for a group.
FIGURE 1. Sample actor map organized geographically
Clarify the purpose of the actor map before beginning the exercise so all participants are on the same page. An example topic could be “this actor map will show my institutions’ relationships to organizations that might be helpful during a public health crisis.”
Identify what relationships are being mapped. Are they connected by geography, subject matter, audience, or some other commonality? Determine how specific the named actors will be. Is the exercise naming general actors (a type of organization or institution, e.g., “public schools”) or specific ones (an organization or person’s name, e.g., an individual school, administrator, or teacher)? If the network’s boundaries are particularly complex, consider producing several maps.
The “system frame” is both the logical and physical layout of the map. To give the map structure, define the main system organizing the map and the subsystems that influence it. These subsystems might be topical (health and human services, education, government, etc.) or geographic (internal, local, regional, national, international). See figure 1 for a sample system frame with subsystems organized geographically.
Place key actors within their corresponding subsystems (see figure 1 for an example of a subsystem organized geographically). The list in 4.1.1 Considering potential new partners and partner networks may be helpful for brainstorming. List key actor names on sticky notes to move actors around more easily or remove them during refinement (the next step).
Questions to help identify actors include:
Rank the level of influence the actors have over the main system. If the map is cluttered or overwhelming, consider removing low-influence actors to simplify the map and to focus your efforts on the actors with the most power in the system.
Indicate the type and intensity of relationships that exist between actors within the main system, as well as between actors outside of the main system. For example, a museum’s major donor who works at the local health department would have a strong philanthropic relationship with the museum (main system) and a strong employment relationship with the health department (outside the main system).
Identify opportunities and challenges in the system using existing knowledge about the relationships between actors, organizations, and subsystems. Momentum might be positive relationships or existing initiatives and partnerships. Blockages might be negative relationships, communications gaps, or other challenges.
As a visual representation of a network, the resulting actor map is likely to be very complex. It has the potential to clarify the institution’s existing connections and surface opportunities to build relationships that might be key during a public health crisis.
During a public health crisis, new or expanded collaborative networks may be needed to address the emerging issues at hand. Libraries, archives, and museums are already trusted sources of information and community hubs, making these institutions not only valuable members of collaborative networks, but also potential conveners and leaders of these groups. Networks are built by interlocking partnerships. In cases where your institution is leading the creation of a collaborative network, approach other organizations as a potential new partner—not just for your organization but for the network. The CDC suggests the following steps for developing new partnerships (adapted from the CDC’s Checklist for Developing a Partnership):
Understand their mission, interests, assets, and culture. This will help clearly express the value of the partnership to both parties and with effective communication.
Set expectations around what the partnership intends to achieve to provide stability and predictability in an otherwise uncertain situation. Establish a shared language with partners defining the type of partnership and its goals.
Express what institutional needs your organization hopes to address through the partnership. Learn about your partner’s needs. This conversation can help define the partnership’s goal and build rapport and trust.
In the case of public health crises, these contributions might be knowledge of and access to an audience, effective communication and storytelling skills, experience delivering educational messaging, public trust, staff’s time and talent, access to facilities, or any of the organization’s other assets.
The partnership should represent value to all involved; transactional relationships between partners are rarely sustainable. For strategies on building more equitable partnerships, consider OF/BY/FOR ALL’s partner power meeting technique and tools from Highline Network’s Community First Toolkit (designed with parks in mind, but with transferrable strategies).
New collaborative networks require a significant effort and should be considered carefully. The CDC provides a one-sheet Partnership Assessment worksheet and VicHealth offers a more in-depth partnership analysis tool to help assess potential partnerships.
Defining the purpose of a new network
Successful networks benefit from a clear purpose and set of expectations. Take the following steps when establishing new collaborative relationships with other organizations:
Networking – exchanging information for mutual benefit, often through email, listservs, newsletters, etc. This is the least formal type of partnership described here and doesn’t require developing trust. For libraries, archives, and museums, this level of partnership might already exist through state or local associations or topic-specific associations of similar types of institutions.
Coordinating – networking and changing behavior to achieve a common purpose. During a public health crisis, an example of coordination might be all museums within a city deciding to put the same public health policies in place, such as mask wearing, to create consistent expectations for visitor behavior across institutions.
Cooperating – coordinating and sharing resources. Cooperation requires a high level of mutual trust. For libraries, archives, and museums, shared resources might include things like buildings or physical space, educational content or materials, or member email lists.
Collaborating – cooperating and mutual capacity building. Collaboration requires staff at the partner organizations to work together as an extension of each other's organizations to accomplish the goal of the partnership. During a public health crisis, an example of this might be one organization with a more robust communications department developing communications that can be used by both partner organizations.
Bridge – helps define the network’s common purpose, discover the complementary assets and needs among network participants, and/or keeps an eye out for new people and perspectives to bring into the network. As one REALM participant stated, “If you're the common person in between other networks and you can connect them, be that bridge.”
Matchmaker – introduces two people who each have trust in the matchmaker. Once the introductions are made, the matchmaker steps out of the way to let the trust take hold between the newly connected people.
Facilitator – creates opportunities for network interactions to occur, such as hosting the video calls, planning agendas for meetings, and keeping the communication flowing across the network.
Information resource – gathers information on topics of shared interest, vets the information to ensure it is relevant and reliable and shares it through communications channels.
Participant – shares their story and their organization’s story to strengthen their connection to the group in a new network. Participants articulate how they could support the common purpose and what they (and their organization) are seeking in return. Several library, archive, and museum participants in REALM activities advised, “Check your ego at the door.”
Amplifier – leverages the organization’s visibility and reach to raise awareness within their community of the information gathered or produced by the network.
Middleman – connects organizations to funding or resources that fuel programs or initiatives. Those in this role could, however, also connect the organizations they resourced together, learn from the specialized knowledge or experience those organizations bring, and share back out through their grantee communication channels. This role is often played by foundations or other philanthropic organizations.
Trusted resources – serves as a place that people more readily turn to that organization for information or support during a crisis. Libraries, archives, and museums have a key role in helping people find reliable information that they can trust.
Once a network is established, the work of accomplishing the goals of the network begins. Maintaining smooth operations of a network is key to its success. What maintenance looks like will depend on what problem the network is trying to solve, how the network has been defined, and how it is being governed (see the previous section). However, there are two key elements to maintaining a network, as outlined in Community Tool Box’s Coalition Building II: Maintaining a Coalition:
Because networks are built on relationships, staying in touch is important. Keeping members aware of the network’s efforts and engaged in conversation keeps those
Whether formally or informally, it’s key that network members reflect on the efficacy of the network. This can be a formal evaluation process (see Community Tool Box’s
“Evaluating the Initiative” for guidance on designing a formal evaluation) or something
as informal as inviting feedback at the end of meetings. The important thing is to seek
this feedback consistently and use it to make decisions about network maintenance.
Community Tool Box’s Coalition Building II: Maintaining a Coalition offers a maintenance checklist to help identify specific areas in need of maintenance, an asset mapping tool to identify resources within the network that can contribute to maintenance needs, and a coalition planning timeline to help leaders of the network prioritize and plan maintenance activities. The maintenance checklist includes self-checks on:
The REALM project has also gathered the following advice for building healthy working relationships in a network from its engagement with libraries, archives, and museums during the life of the project:
Make expectations clear
Weave the network
Working collectively as part of a partner network comes with challenges. Being aware of these possible pitfalls can help partners work together more effectively. The following list describes challenges that partnerships may face (adapted from “Core Concepts and Key Ideas for Understanding Public Sector Organizational Networks: Using Research to Inform Scholarship and Practice,” by Keith Provan and Robin Lemaire).
Varied levels of commitment to network goals
Some partners in the network may be deeply involved because the network goals align more closely with their organization’s missions, while others may be less involved.
Organizational culture and norms may be very different between partners.
Loss of autonomy
In networks where shared decisions are being made, partners can struggle when shared decisions don’t reflect the individual interests of their institution.
Coordination fatigue and costs
Coordinating decisions and activities will take a lot of time and effort. This can be eased through the adoption of an appropriate form of network governance.
With accountability spread over all partners in the network, some organizations may participate minimally and expect other organizations to make major contributions to the work.
Partners participating in a network add the complexity of the network’s goals to their existing work. At times, the goals of their organization and the goals of the network may not be perfectly aligned. These competing priorities can cause tension and conflict.
Most of these challenges can be addressed through careful communication about the work of the network, its value for all partners involved, and expectations for behavior. Articulating and preparing for these and other potential challenges can minimize their impact on the network.
Network life cycles
Not every network will exist in perpetuity. Whether it’s because the network has achieved its goals, is no longer effective, or has been replaced by some other entity, they can be sound reasons for ending a network.
When a network has been established in response to a public health crisis, the notions of closing the network once the crisis has passed may be a cause of celebration rather than sadness. However, it’s helpful to approach the closing of a network with the same care applied to its formation. It can be useful to consider the Two Loops Model of Systems Change, especially the idea of providing “hospice” to old systems as a necessary part of transitioning to a new system.
If the collaborative network is to be sustained after the public health crisis has passed, or if an existing network was adapted to meet the needs of the crisis, an explicit plan should be developed that clearly communicates what is the common purpose and goals of the network, how its membership and activities might change, and how it will be sustained. Community Tool Box offers guidance on “Sustaining the Work or Initiative” that can be helpful in this decision-making process. FEMA’s maturity model for identifying the life cycle stage of public-private partnerships may also be helpful in considering what the next steps might be for your network if it is to be sustained.
Libraries, archives, and museums are adept at providing their communities with trusted information and resources. These institutions typically also have experience with disaster planning and response. The intersection of those two roles became apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. By applying what was learned during the COVID-19 pandemic experience, this playbook offers a starting point for inquiry on a range of topics that emerged as high priorities for cultural heritage professionals when preparing for and navigating through a public health crisis. Each institution can adapt the information for the context of a local institution and community.
The following resources provide additional guidance and more in-depth reference material for preparing to face a public health crisis. Some of the resources have been referenced in the preceding text, while others are included here for the first time. Each resource is accompanied by a brief explanation of how it might be used in practice: as a tool, an example from another institution, or reading material to deepen understanding of the topic. All resources listed are available for free. A few require creating a free log-in to access.
The REALM team expresses appreciation for the generous and open sharing of knowledge by scholars, policy makers, subject matter experts, and practitioners, which formed the building blocks for this playbook. Thank you for your contributions.