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Communities, Creativity, and Imagination: On the National Medal for Museum and Library Service

September 3, 2020

Communities, Creativity, and Imagination: On the National Medal for Museum and Library Service
Nominations for the 2021 Medals are Now Open. Here’s the Take from IMLS Director Crosby Kemper.

Crosby Kemper, IMLS Director

While times may be different—with critical racial justice discussions, communities and families impacted by Covid, and a new economic crisis—America’s libraries and museums are still there to connect us all. The IMLS National Medal for Museum and Library Service honors museums and libraries that demonstrate significant impact in their communities, something that despite how 2020 has gone so far, is something that is still happening each and every day across America.

Our agency's program, known as the National Medals, has been recognizing outstanding institutions for more than 25 years. If you haven’t seen it yet, I encourage you to watch this video, which draws from just a few of the incredible testimonials we’ve captured with the help of StoryCorps—stories of just how much libraries and museums have meant to the people they serve. You might not be the only ones for whom it brings tears to your eyes.

We’ve just opened up nominations (due November 2), and I encourage each and every person whose life has been touched by their local museum or library to recommend them for nomination. Creativity, imagination, resourcefulness, community service, and a good idea can come from anywhere, and I urge libraries and museums of all sizes and types to submit their stories of excellence and demonstrate their impact in the community.

Last year, we took a pause on the Medals to rethink the program, and I want to share a little bit more about how we—and I—approached that when I joined IMLS as its director in January. I’m a lover of literature with a passion for philosophy, and I brought all of this to the table in thinking this through. Two words jumped out to me: community and impact.

While the needs of each community are as varied as the communities themselves, we can focus our understanding of community along two dimensions: defining social well-being and widening the scope of what we mean by impact.

Social well-being is connectedness both digital and communal, and in ever-widening categories found in the research of social scientists and economists on the social, financial, educational, and health-related interconnectedness of our communities.

My view here follows that of French sociologist and political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, whose unique contribution to envisioning the United States was his picture of America as a place of spontaneous and grassroots growth of associations, whose goals are many but which are open, like libraries and museums, to all.

The community is made up of, in the words of Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the “little platoons,” communities within the community that increasingly come together around activities. Where many of our traditional forms of community were inward, looking to family, ethnic, or religious groupings, today more are looking outward, with inclusive—not exclusive—purpose. This changing definition is an opportunity to see our communities more broadly.

Impact on people and communities in our current environment can be perceived not only on the traditional goals of lifelong learning and education, but also new ways of digital access and capacity, ways of engaging communities, forging new forms of associating and connecting, bringing all the forces and faces of the community together.

We can hope to define, or at least describe, the impact on poverty, on digital inclusion, on engagement with traditionally underrepresented communities, on individuals with disabilities, on types of inequities that can exist across the nation.

Even throughout the crises we are experiencing this year, we can still look to libraries and museums as places of healing, of refuge, of curiosity and inspiration, whose resiliency is the harbinger and the symbol, the soul of communal rebirth. We look forward to hearing powerful stories of community impact from across the nation in the nominations for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service for 2021.

Programs: 
National Medal for Museum and Library Service