Monday, November 21, 2022

Community-Engaged Student Experience Leads to $150,000 Grant

Across Iowa, rural community libraries tend to be storehouses for documents, records, photographs, and published material that collectively tells the story of events and people that shape the surrounding area's history, often without the resources to organize and share them with future generations. Through personal experience, community-engaged coursework, and a personal mission to address this problem, Micah Bateman has been championing this issue while working to provide solutions, first as a student and then as a professor at the University of Iowa.

Micah Bateman, Ph.D., assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) at the University of Iowa, worked with the Iowa Initiative for Sustainable Communities (IISC) and Office of Community Engagement when he was a graduate student with SLIS.

In one of the community engagement projects undertaken with IISC as a student, Bateman worked with the Washington Public Library (WPL) in Washington, Iowa, advising them on how to use recently acquired iPads - new technology at the time.

While assisting with recommendations for circulating the tablets and developing programming about integrating the technology into existing services, Bateman noticed that the library had an extensive archive of community and genealogical documents in storage.

"Because there was such a small staff, no one was able to organize and promote these documents," Bateman said. 

Bateman had previously been a reporter for his hometown newspaper in rural Jacksonville, Texas, when he first noticed how local libraries preserved community memory.

"Even the newspaper I worked for didn't archive its newspapers, Bateman said. "We relied on the public library to archive our old back issues."

Creating Student Experiences

Now on the faculty for SLIS, Bateman's early experience working with under-resourced rural libraries has become a focus for his students as they work on community-engaged projects in class that serve local libraries and cultural heritage centers.

Bateman said that SLIS has a deep commitment to community engagement, offering community-engaged courses (CEC) where students get active learning experiences and gain skills to put on a resume while offering community partners the expertise of organized and guided graduate students.

"At the heart of these projects and community engagement is a sense of community inclusion and wellbeing," Bateman said.

In one of his first class projects, Bateman partnered with Iowa City Poetry, which was looking to start a lending library to share poetry with the community.

"The director of Iowa City Poetry was not a librarian and needed consultation on what library systems they would need to make the poetry lending library run," Bateman said.

In 2020, Bateman's Computing Foundations Course (CFC) students helped the organization critically evaluate new and emerging technology to identify platforms to purchase for implementing an Integrated Library System (ILS) for cataloging materials and keeping a database of users essential to running a library of any size.

"One of the groups recommended the platform Iowa City Poetry now uses to run the lending library," Bateman said. "The organization also takes in a number of our students for practicum projects based on the success of that experience."

The following year, students in the CFC course worked with the Jackson County Historical Society, an IISC partner led by a former librarian, with a lot of community documentation about the City of Maquoketa that needed to be cataloged and digitized for sharing with the broader community.

"We got to help an actual librarian heading up this historical society think about what digital platform would be best for all of the community documents that told the story of the history of Jackson County and Maquoketa," Bateman said. "We used the same process that helped Iowa City Poetry to determine what platforms would be best for a volunteer force at a historical society that would bring all of these community documents and memories into the digital realm."

That same year, students also worked with the Marion Public Library, which was looking to preserve the stories of those affected by the 2020 derecho, which brought straight-line winds up to 140 miles per hour, with devastating damage, to Midwest communities across the United States - the worst of which was in Eastern Iowa.

"They had a lot of community information they wanted to collect, so our class partnered with them to offer tips on how to use the platform for sharing those stories, along with advising on how they could fill out the descriptions of and organize the documents," Bateman said.

Other classes included projects where students encoded and edited for the online Walt Whitman Archive, a partnership started in 2020 and continues to this day, along with coding a website for indexing disability studies articles.

During these partnerships, Bateman said it became clear that rural public libraries and historical societies become dumping grounds for community historical documents, stories, and memory because they are the only institutions that will take them.

"The nature of rural budgets and volunteer forces means they don't have the labor power to organize all of those documents to fully tell community stories and get the community engaged in its memory," Bateman said.

Grant Helps Fuel Impact Across Iowa

Bateman's continued experience with assisting small and rural libraries - charged with collecting and storing vast amounts of records and stories that represent the 'memory' of communities - led to a $150,000 grant to tackle the issue in a meaningful way for small Iowa communities.

"We don't just want these archival materials to come to light, we want communities to feel whole and healthy, and we want people who have not historically felt a sense of belonging to newly feel a sense of belonging," Bateman said.

The two-year Forum Grant, Activating Archives in Remote Communities: Training Rural LIS Professionals for Inclusive Memory Work, was awarded to SLIS and is represented by Professors Lindsay Mattock and Micah Bateman.

"We have found that there are studies that show when communities engage in history and memory-making and get to tell their own stories, they have a better sense of community overall," Bateman said. "The people who engage in those projects feel a sense of community belonging that is good for both individual and community health."

Bateman and Mattock will form an advisory panel in the first year to investigate ways small and rural libraries can increase their capacity to organize community archives while being sensitive to the diversity and equity of the voices within. The second year of the project is about results distribution.

The grant addresses one of small and rural libraries' most significant challenges: adequate staffing to organize and share important community stories.

"Sometimes they just have a sole library director and no other workers," Bateman said. "Some even have a part-time library director who could do the job for 12 dollars an hour, 20 hours a week, but lacks the formal education and training to make a sizeable impact. What ends up happening is all of these community stories are a back-burner concern, and they don't have the time to organize and share them."

A significant emphasis of the grant focuses on volunteer recruitment and management to help over-committed library directors.

"Then the challenge with volunteer recruitment is recruiting a diverse set of individuals who reflect community demographics and can work with computers," Bateman said.

Bateman and Mattock will also be working on a set of materials to guide rural librarians on addressing issues of cultural sensitivity, diversity, and inclusion as they work to organize and share community stories.

"Rural Iowa communities have queer, disabled, and impoverished people, who have stories that are less documented or don't feel a sense of belonging enough to volunteer activities for libraries or historical societies," Bateman said. "We will try to create training materials that assume no prior knowledge but encourage the inclusion of stories from people historically excluded from community stories, and those are the challenges we are facing."

Story by James Dykeman