Feature: Library Services for the “New Normal” of Miltary Families
Cumberland County (N.C.) Public Library and Information Center (CCPL&IC) serves the county that is home to Fort Bragg, one of the largest military installations in the US.1 With more than 60,000 service members stationed at Fort Bragg,2 a large number of Cumberland County’s residents are directly experiencing our country’s longest-sustained deployment in the history of the all-volunteer force.3
In 2013, CCPL&IC committed to learning more about the county’s military families and finding ways to serve them. We conducted a community assessment of the military community, using a process closely aligned with the values described in the American Library Association’s (ALA) Libraries Transforming Communities initiative.4 We refer to this project as a “military community assessment” instead of a “needs assessment.” Rather than focus on the needs of the community’s military families, our interviews and focus groups explored the aspirations and priorities of the community, which we defined as service members, their families, and local organizations that want to support them.
There were two reasons we believed the ALA’s “turning outward” approach was particularly effective for our project. First, military family members are strong and resilient. We knew most would not talk about their needs. Instead, our goal was to learn how we could provide opportunities to enhance their ability to cope with the struggles of modern military life and improve the quality of their lives.
Second, Cumberland County is strongly committed to its military community and there are many organizations, both on post and off, that provide a range of services to military personnel and their families. In fact, in 2008, the county declared itself the world’s first sanctuary for soldiers and families.5 Through the library’s involvement with some of these organizations, we knew a number of professionals with a sophisticated understanding of the challenges faced by military families. Their experiences with outreach to military families meant they could articulate the barriers to reaching them. We wanted to understand the priorities of these military-serving organizations and explore collaborations that would support their efforts as well as our own.
Engaging With the Military Community
To initiate engagement with the military community, the library joined the Fayetteville Community Blueprint Network, with more than fifty-five local organizations that provide community support for service members, veterans, and their families.6 Many professionals who work in these organizations are members of military families themselves, either as active-duty or retired service members, spouses, or children of military parents. The library awareness coordinator actively participates in meetings and events sponsored by the network and its member organizations.
In April 2013, CCPL&IC hosted a community forum on post-traumatic stress (PTS), which featured a one-hour discussion with panelists who had expertise with PTS through professional or personal experiences. (There is momentum within the military community to drop the word “disorder,” with many arguing that stress is a normal reaction to military conflict.7) The enthusiastic attendance persuaded us to pursue a thorough community assessment to learn what the library has to offer to the local military community. CCPL&IC applied for and was awarded a Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant in July 2013 through the State Library of North Carolina. The library’s community assessment was conducted by a military family project team of library staff members, led by the library awareness coordinator and supported by the project’s evaluation consultant, to collect information about the military community and develop marketing and programming strategies for this population.
Community Assessment Methods
We collected most of our data through key informant interviews and focus groups. For this project, seventeen individuals were interviewed who had ties to the Fayetteville military community. Fifteen were members of military families. They were either active-duty service members or veterans themselves, or were spouses or children of active-duty or retired service members. Eleven of these fifteen interviewees also worked at military-supporting organizations, so they could talk about the experiences of other military families as well as their own. Interview data were supplemented through reviews of scholarly literature and reports from sources such as the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Army.
Members of the Community Blueprint Network were instrumental in helping to recruit interview participants. Library staff members with ties to the community also helped to identify interviewees. To supplement the interviews, the library awareness coordinator and evaluation consultant met with two groups with strong ties to the military community. They visited a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) program that met at a local church, where approximately 70 percent of participating mothers were military spouses. They initiated informal discussions with military mothers and collected additional information with an informal questionnaire.
As a validity check, key findings from the interviews were presented to the Living in the New Normal Committee (LINN), a steering committee for the Forward March conference held annually in Fayetteville. The conference is designed for behavioral health and other professionals who work with military children. The advisory group is comprised of representatives from community organizations that work with military families. Committee members confirmed most of our conclusions and provided excellent insight into our findings.
The information collected through this process helped the library’s project team understand which library programs and services would be of most interest to military families. The team identified potential marketing strategies that could effectively target this community. It also developed ideas for new programs as well as partnerships with other community organizations.
The marketing and program strategies were then presented to an advisory group of representatives from organizations that either provided services to military families or organized cultural events in Cumberland County or Fort Bragg. Some of the advisory group members had participated in our focus group and key informant interviews, but others were formally introduced to the library’s military family initiative for the first time. Through their feedback, the library was able to develop a concrete plan for its military community project.
What the Library Offers the Military Community
The interview process did teach CCPL&IC an important lesson about the concerns and priorities of military families. Due to the enthusiastic participation at our PTS forum, we anticipated more requests for programming related to this and other war-related mental and emotional health issues. We learned, instead, that there is a more universal disruptor to military family life: the military deployment cycle. The deployment cycle affects every family of active-duty service members, regardless of rank.
During the past ten years, deployment has been a constant state for many military families. Some service members have experienced five or more deployments.8 The cycle has three phases. The first is pre-deployment, during which families prepare for the departure of the service member. Phase two is deployment, when the service member leaves and the spouse is left to function as a single parent. Phase three is re-integration, when the returning service member and family must reconnect. Experts call this lifestyle of constant adaption to stress and loss as the “new normal,”9 but spouses say that subsequent deployments do not get easier over time. In fact, the stress is cumulative.
There were common themes among the military spouses about their family priorities that help them cope and adapt to living in an almost-constant deployment cycle:
The top priority of most military parents is the well-being of their children. Our key informants from military-serving organizations told us that military parents were averse to seeking help for themselves, but they did seek programs for their children. The parents we interviewed corroborated this observation, expressing minimal interest in the adult-oriented library activities but requesting more information about child and teen programs. Parents were most interested in library story hours for their younger children and evening lock-ins for teenagers. While they valued opportunities for their children to interact with nonmilitary peers, they also recognized that their children benefited from spending time with other military children who understood their experiences.
- Family events. Military parents also valued family-oriented events that allowed family members to spend unstructured time together. They talked about attending outdoor festivals held in downtown Fayetteville, as well as military-sponsored retreats and camping trips offered to couples and families. The organizational representatives confirmed that their family events were very popular, particularly those that were free and held outdoors.
- Career and educational information for transitioning service members. Transitioning service members were the other group identified as potential users of library services. While the military provides strong support to transitioning service members, some may feel self-conscious researching their plans to leave the military on-post, in close proximity to other members of their unit. Interviewees urged the library to emphasize that it could provide information for service members because many might assume that the library’s resources do not address the special circumstances of those in the military.
We did ask directly about the need for information or programs directed toward sensitive topics such as PTS and domestic violence. Most people we talked to thought that the library should provide information about sensitive topics. However, our interviewees all warned that such issues are still stigmatized within the military ranks, in spite of high-level efforts within the military to counter such negativity toward individuals suffering from such conditions. Our interviewees suggested attracting members of the military community to the library through child-oriented and family-oriented programs and services, then discreetly offering information about PTS and sensitive topics. For example, shortcuts to local services could be placed on computer desktops and printed brochures could be offered through library kiosks that have information about a broad range of services for military families.
Collaborating with Military-Serving Organizations
Representatives from military-supporting organizations had excellent insight into working with military families, in part because they themselves were active-duty or retired military members or military parents. They told us that their main challenge was reaching the geographically dispersed military community, which was spread throughout Cumberland and other counties. While statistics for Fort Bragg were not readily available, national statistics indicated that approximately 90 percent of military families live off-post.10 Our key informants estimated that Fort Bragg’s statistics are comparable. They saw opportunities to leverage the library’s resources to improve their organizations’ contact with the geographically dispersed military community.
Representatives expressed the most interest in this library resource, particularly those who worked with on-post organizations. They were keenly aware that most military families lived off-post and only ventured onto the installation for very special holidays or occasional visits to the commissary. The location of library branches throughout the county would provide more convenient access to the majority of military families. The representatives also said that their organizations could make use of meeting rooms with videoconferencing, allowing them to make on-post meetings more accessible to the off-post members.
The library’s physical space had other advantages over on-post meeting spaces. The library is known to serve all community members, regardless of their social rank. This characteristic of “neutral space” was appealing to organizations that host groups convening service members of different military ranks and their families.
For example, the Army’s Family Readiness Groups (FRGs) are organized for all members of a deploying unit. These groups include soldiers of all ranks, family members, volunteers, and civilian employees. They meet throughout the deployment cycle, allowing for communication between FRG members and the chain of command, as well as mutual support among families sharing a common experience. Membership in FRGs is automatic for soldiers and families, but participation is voluntary.11
Military leaders know some of the barriers to keeping families involved. First, most families find coming to post to be inconvenient. Second, while rank is not recognized within FRGs, it may be difficult for FRG members to overlook the difference in rank. Our interview participants believed that the off-post library branch locations not only could make meetings convenient for FRG members, but they also could provide neutral space that minimizes the influence of rank.
Military leaders believe that families cope much better when involved in these groups, but meeting on-post is inconvenient for most families. Holding meetings at public library branches addresses both of these issues.
In addition, the library is not associated with negative health issues or social problems that might impact, for example, military organizations that work with service members who have mental or behavioral health issues. As one key informant stated, hospitals and mental health facilities are for people who have something wrong with them. Libraries are for people who want to learn something and become empowered.
Military-serving organizations also need off-post venues for promoting their services and requested that the library establish information kiosks for their print information. They also suggested placing shortcuts to their websites on some of the library’s public computer terminals. The library could include signage directing military family members to resources of interest to them. Information related to sensitive topics should be interspersed with information about more neutral topics.
Venue for Sharing Experiences
Representatives also thought the CCPL&IC could be an excellent host for events that recognize and share information about the extraordinary service of military members and their families. Book author visits, displays, and social events with military themes would allow the broader community to celebrate its military community.
Planned Programs and Services
Based on the feedback collected through this assessment, the library established four primary goals for its military community initiative:
- Collaborate with local organizations to promote library and community information, services, and programs of interest to the military community.
- Improve military family members’ access to information that is important to them.
- Provide a venue for family members to find programs and social experiences that will allow them to connect with each other and the broader community.
- Build appreciation in the local community for the strength and sacrifice of its service members and families.
To pursue these goals, the library committed to remaining active in the Community Blueprint Network. Network members can provide invaluable assistance to the library with any military-oriented project we undertake. Our involvement in this network seems to be central to our success.
The library also pursued opportunities for potential collaborators who emerged during the community assessment project. In particular, this project successfully raised our visibility with representatives of on-post organizations who have requested information about our meeting space and talked with us about placing information at our library branches. The library awareness coordinator has already responded to requests for information about these services.
We also have become more successful in participating in on-post activities. In the past, we found it difficult to find the appropriate contacts to participate in the various fairs and events held on the installation. As a result of contacts made during our community assessment, CCPL&IC established a solid relationship with a representative from Army Community Services (ACS). We now attend the ACS’s monthly orientation offered to new soldiers and their families. A CCPL&IC representative provides a short briefing about services offered at CCPL&IC and how newcomers can get a library card.
The library celebrated the Army’s 239th birthday in June, with sixty to seventy community members attending. Fort Bragg’s Child, Youth and School Services had an exhibit booth at the birthday party, as did the Red Cross. (Representatives from both organizations participate in the Community Blueprint Network.) The local newspaper covered the event. 12
The library staff has developed other ideas that we are considering. Listed below are a few projects under consideration:
- Sesame Street “Talk. Listen. Connect.” Several interviewees suggested that the library investigate Sesame Street’s popular “Talk. Listen. Connect.” outreach initiative to help children cope with deployment, combat-related injuries, and the death of a loved one.13 Through this initiative, Sesame Street offers videos, storybooks, and workbooks for military families going through difficult transitions. The library will look into purchasing some of these materials. We also hope to contract with Sesame Street to send a character for a military family event.
- Military STEM projects. The library participates in the annual North Carolina Science Festival and may incorporate a military-related program into its STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) theme. This event is geared toward teenagers.
- Military book discussion group. The library may seek funding to purchase a military-themed Great Books anthology for this discussion group.
- Author visit. CCPL&IC may invite North Carolina poet laureate Joseph Bathanti, who wrote a poem titled “Fayetteville” that was inspired by a recent visit to the area. The library is exploring ways to memorialize and display the poem.
- Add exhibits or demonstrations for transitioning soldiers to the library’s annual job fair. The library may contact the Army Career and Alumni Program (ACAP) to participate in a library-hosted job fair. ACAP provides transition and job assistance to soldiers and their families.
- Exhibits of community members’ items. We are discussing a “Things They Carried” exhibit of service members’ personal war pieces, loaned to us by military families. We might add stories from the owners about these pieces that could be displayed or posted online.
- Exhibits from Fort Bragg museums. The John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Museum and the 82nd Airborne Division War Memorial Museum have both agreed to lend museum pieces to the library. (The library will have to demonstrate that it has adequate security and display cases for these pieces.)
At the suggestion of health professionals who participated in interviews and focus groups, the library plans to provide professional development to its staff. Representatives of military-support organizations suggested that the library staff become more aware of military culture, including how to “speak Army” so they can converse with members of the local military community. The library’s connection with organizations that have school-based programs for military children will allow it to identify professional development resources.
Less than one percent of our nation’s population serves in the United States military.14 In spite of the public’s current level of love and respect for its service members, the military and nonmilitary sectors of our population are becoming increasingly more isolated from each other.15 We learned, through our assessment project, that CCPL&IC can serve an important function in bringing together military and civilian members of our community through events that recognize and celebrate the extraordinary services of these individuals. We can provide ways for military families to share their stories with each other and their nonmilitary neighbors.
We believe that other public libraries throughout our nation are well positioned to reach out to military families and celebrate their service. Some public libraries have a large military installation in their service areas. Others may have families of reservists and National Guard members interspersed throughout their neighborhoods. Like our library, military-serving organizations may need meeting space, kiosks, and computer terminals to connect with these families who are facing the difficult challenges of modern military life. For those public libraries that want to reach out to military families, CCPL&IC offers the following lessons learned:
- Work with other organizations that want to serve military families. It can be a challenge to connect with installations, but networking is the best strategy for doing so. People who work with community-based organizations often have connections on-post and can help you navigate the bureaucracy.
- Be patient and persistent in connecting with on-post organizations. The military is actually quite progressive and dedicated to addressing the needs of military families. On-post organizations are aware that military families live mostly off-post and seek locations to provide resources and host events in the communities where their members live. If you
can connect with organizations that support children and families, doors will open. Just realize it might be easier for these organizations to come to the library rather than for the library to participate in on-post activities.
- Military families take pride in being independent, so focus on their strengths. Find events that recognize their sacrifice and allow them to tell their stories.
- Provide information about sensitive topics, but offer it discretely and situate the information so that military community members can find it without assistance. Use signage that leads them to resources of interest. Include information about sensitive topics, such as PTS or domestic abuse, among wellness materials on, for instance, yoga or massage.
- Also, use signage and other forms of publicity to let military members know you have resources specifically for them. They often do not expect civilians who do not work on the installation to understand their special circumstances. Find ways to let them know you have resources and show how reference librarian assistance can be useful to them.
- Promote children’s services to the military community. Parents are very concerned about their children’s welfare and will come to the library for services for their children. Once the parents are in the door, they may find resources that will be of use to them as well.
We want to note some limitations to our data collection. The majority of our military spouses were wives of active-duty service members and their service members tended to be officers. A few interviewees from military-serving organizations were veterans or worked with veterans, but they still talked mainly about the needs of active-duty military families. We found it
very difficult to find interviewees associated with enlisted service members or veterans. We assumed that active-duty families would be the easiest to reach and attract, so we decided to focus our initial efforts on this group. As we further develop our military family program, we may find it necessary to talk with members representing veterans and enlisted service members.
Our library found the community assessment process to be an excellent opportunity to learn about our military community, promote our services and make contact with other organizations that may become invaluable partners in our efforts to reach our military families. We recommend other public libraries get involved with this strong and resilient community that serves our country with great sacrifice.
The military community assessment project was supported by grant funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the federal Library Services and Technology Act as administered by the State Library of North Carolina, a division of the Department of Cultural Resources.
- MARCOA Publishing, Inc., “My BaseGuide: Fort Bragg Digital Relocation/Welcome,” accessed June 17, 2014.
- Colonel Stephen J. Cozza and Richard M. Lerner, “Military Children and Families: Introducing the Issue,” Military Children and Families 23, no. 2 (Fall 2013), accessed Nov. 10,
- American Library Association, “Transforming Libraries . . . Continued:The Next Chapter in the Evolution of Libraries—and ALA,” American Libraries 43, no. 5/6 (May/June 2012), accessed Nov. 11, 2014.
- “Sanctuary (fact sheet),” overview of the Army’s Army and World’s First Sanctuary for Soldiers, Sanctuary Press Room, accessed June 17, 2014.
- “Frequently Asked Questions,” Fayetteville Community Blueprint, Give an Hour, accessed June 17, 2014.
- Mark Thompson, “The Disappearing ‘Disorder’: Why PTSD is becoming PTS,” Time (June 05, 2011), accessed July 24, 2014.
- Cozza and Lerner, “Military Children and Families.”
- Jackie Lyden, “Military Families Learn to Live with the ‘New Normal,’” National Public Radio, Mar. 21, 2009, accessed June 23, 2014.
- Office of the Deputy Under Secretary of Defense, “Overview, Military Housing,” accessed June 17, 2014.
- U.S. Army, “Fort Bragg Family Readiness Group,” accessed June 17, 2014, www.bragg.army.mil/82nd/1bct/Pages/frg.aspx.
- Jaclyn Shambaugh, “Library Marks Army’s 239th Birthday with Family Program,” Fayetteville Observer (June 15, 2014), accessed June 24, 2014.
- Sesame Street Workshop, “Arming Military Families with Love, Laughter, and Practical Tools for Deployment,” accessed June 23, 2014.
- Alyson Hurt, Erica Ryan, and JoElla Straley, “By the Numbers: Today’s Military,” National Public Radio, July 3, 2011, accessed June 17, 2014.
- Karl W. Eikenberry and David M. Kennedy, “Americans and Their Military, Drifting Apart,” New York Times (May 26, 2013), accessed June 23, 2014,.
Tags: Cumberland County, Cynthia Olney, Jennifer Taft, Libraries Serving Military Families, military communities, North Caroline Library and Information Center