Libraries, museums, and organizations throughout the United States and across the world host National Library of Medicine (NLM) traveling exhibitions. These sites plan and present enriching and engaging programs to connect their communities with the information in the exhibitions and with the wide variety of publicly-available NLM resources. This is the eighth post in a series called “Making Exhibition Connections,” which invites host venues to share their partnerships, programs, and public engagement experiences with Circulating Now readers. Today, Corinne Wilson shares her experience with Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America in the Spokane County Library District in Washington state.
Circulating Now: Please tell us about yourself and Spokane County Library District. For example, what is your job? Where are you located? Who visits your library on a regular basis?
Corinne Wilson: I joined the staff at Spokane County Library District (SCLD) eight years ago and for the last five years, my focus has been planning unique library programs that meet community needs. SCLD is comprised of eleven locations that serve the rural and suburban areas outside of Spokane city limits and the interests of the community are unique in each. I was initially planning to house the exhibit at our North Spokane Library (before closures due to the coronavirus pandemic), where many of our patrons are retired, young families, or college students from nearby universities.
CN: Spokane County Library District was scheduled to host the traveling banner exhibition Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America, but plans were altered as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Please tell us about the new plans to present the exhibition.
CW: Plans for the exhibition had to dramatically change, first because we had to close our doors for the safety of the community, and that removed our first point of contact with our patrons. When it became evident that the shutdown in Washington state would become long term, we cancelled the exhibit’s in-person health fair, blood drive, and our lectures. The themes of Politics of Yellow Fever in Alexander Hamilton’s America were timelier than ever, but our healthcare professionals and other planned speakers were now working around the clock, exhausted, and unable to participate.
We immediately compiled the resources we wanted the public to have to make informed decisions about their own health. Many people in the spring of 2020 were unable to reach a healthcare professional due to high demand and instead were searching the web for answers to simple, non-emergency health questions. We released a blog post encouraging our community to have insurance information and medical contact information ready in the event they do become ill. We also encouraged patrons to take advantage of a few user-friendly sources from National Library of Medicine and other trusted sources. The blog was released on social media outlets as well as our website. Our front line information staff were also made aware of these resources and that they could count familiarizing themselves as paid training hours from home.
Next, we capitalized on the popularity of the Disney+ release of Hamilton by offering a tween and teen program around Alexander Hamilton’s part in the 1793 yellow fever outbreak. Kids picked up a sealed bag of supplies from their closest library via our curbside service: a bottle of water, a (water) drinking game to play while listening to the soundtrack that included hydration information from the National Library of Medicine, a “Read Like It’s 1793!” bookmark featuring teen book recommendations around Hamilton’s life and the epidemic, and a reminder to attend the upcoming Zoom event. The bag also contained an information sheet about who the players in the pandemic were and what happened in Philadelphia, and encouraged kids to think critically about what might have caused it. The answer to the mystery was revealed in our Zoom meeting, when we talked about the similarities and differences between Hamilton’s epidemic and our own international shutdown.
Our plans to display related reading material for the exhibit were fulfilled using our eBook and audiobook service. The demand for fiction and nonfiction around pandemics and historical epidemics increased as social distancing, face masks, and hand sanitizer became the new normal for Spokane. SCLD increased our online offerings on these subjects in order to help the public sort out what epidemics have looked like in the past, what they might expect from the future, how to explain to their children, and how to feel less alone when exploring the experiences of others.
Finally, we moved our Civic Lab (modeled after the excellent Skokie Public Library) online. The physical Civic Lab had been a space where patrons at North Spokane Library could pick up a handout with fast facts about a current issue, recommendations for finding out more, and a book on the subject to check out. They could also leave notes in an anonymous community space with their thoughts on a hot news issue. We moved this space to our website, where the first new topic we displayed was, “What Is COVID-19?” In the future, we plan to address additional public health topics in a simple, straightforward way with easily verifiable facts about health.
CN: Were you trying to connect with specific groups within your community?
CW: We were originally focusing on our senior community, many of whom we see during the day at the library and many of whom have a strong interest in history. It’s typical for our senior patrons to seek out friends, family, and trusted librarians for ways to interpret the information they’ve been given by their healthcare provider, or as sources of supplementary information, especially about diet (“Which foods are high in potassium?”). Many of these patrons also turn to online searching, but lack confidence in assessing the quality of what they have found. In order to still reach these patrons without a physical exhibit, we made several features of the library accessible in their homes.
We also quickly placed more focus on reaching tweens and teens who had been sent home for the duration of the school year. These students no longer had access to their usual sources of health information because much of it was provided in school. Many were looking forward to Zoom programs as their only social interaction for the day other than family members.
CN: How did you reach out to your community about the programs? Do you think you were successful in connecting the exhibition topic with your community?
CW: First, we advertised our planned Zoom events on our website and social media channels, as well as an email newsletter of upcoming programs. However, we also realized that information doesn’t have to be communicated only via a program. We released a unique copy of our events magazine, Engage, that patrons received when picking up their holds using our curbside pickup service. It focused solely on databases that county residents can use from home and how to use them, including health resources like ProQuest’s Consumer Health and Coronavirus Research databases, as well as our new Teen Health and Wellness Database courtesy of National Library of Medicine.
We’ve had nothing but positive feedback from the attendees of our programs and library patrons who accessed health information from another service. We also recognize that there may be health needs that we have missed, and it may take time to identify what we haven’t yet done.
CN: What National Library of Medicine health information resources were included in the programs you developed? How did you incorporate them into the programs?
CW: All medical information that was explained was cited from MedlinePlus. We addressed the health needs of our audience (for example, information on how much you should be hydrating yourself along with a fun activity to help you do it) and the historical health needs of the figures in 1793 (including what cures were advised and what results they had).
CN: Did you work with a Regional Medical Library or another NLM resource to identify NLM health information resources for the exhibition? If you did, how did they help? At what part of the planning process did you connect with the resources?
CW: I engaged with NLM’s online resources immediately. The historical information, photos, and documents displayed on the Traveling Exhibition website gave me the background to explain a part of history I had no familiarity with to kids with a lot of questions.
I then turned to MedlinePlus for background information on how different diseases spread and clues health professionals use to figure it out, and turned it into a mystery that I asked the kids to help solve. We also touched on some information regarding what different proposed treatments for yellow fever might do, including wearing masks, avoiding shaking hands, bleeding people, and consuming mercury. (The kids were not in favor of drinking mercury).
CN: What else would you like us to know?
CW: We look forward to hosting more exhibitions with National Library of Medicine. We feel great about serving the public though many different circumstances, including, now, a pandemic.
Corinne Wilson is a librarian for the Spokane County Library District.