Sharada Vishwanath | CIIP 2023 Blog Portfolio


Going into orientation, I had no idea what to expect. This is my first time being part of a large, organized internship and I was excited but slightly nervous to get a feel for CIIP for the first time. From the business casual to the name cards, I loved being in such a professional space, which was also new for me. I was afraid that the environment would maybe be a little cold or unwelcoming, but I was happy to see that everyone was super friendly and willing to create a warm, welcoming experience. One of my favorite parts of the orientation was the scavenger hunt, which allowed me to visit parts of Baltimore I’ve never been to, get ideas for where to go with friends over the summer, and learn more about the city in a hands-on way. I especially loved getting to know my peer mentor group and learning about everyone’s interests and ideas. At first, it was a little challenging for me to open up especially since many of the discussions and reflections required being very vulnerable. I think especially after the scavenger hunt on Wednesday, we all got comfortable with each other and our pictures went from being awkward and stiff to fun selfies. I can easily say that I can call them all friends. Ultimately, the presentations and lectures given were the most memorable part of orientation. I learned a lot from several different perspectives, especially those presenters who did not sugar coat what they had to say. I appreciated the opportunity to learn, and get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Week 1

My first week at the Enoch Pratt Free Library started with an orientation of its own, where I learned about the history of the library and Enoch Pratt himself. After this week, the notion of a library started to evolve from being just a building with books, to being a wide-reaching system that both literally and metaphorically preserves the past, but can still adapt to changing times. I learned the extent to which libraries serve as an anchor for many communities.
This week, I unpacked, shelved, and repackaged hundreds of books. I was pleased and surprised to find that they covered a very wide variety of genres and age groups. Additionally, many of them were written by or about people of color. Books about justice, racism, and otherization were written even at the 0-5 age group level. When I was growing up, I remember struggling to find books that could relate to my experience. A social issue that Baltimore along with every city faces, is promoting and having available materials that showcase a variety of experiences. From television to books, what we consume in the form of entertainment or education can inform racial bias, and don’t often reflect life’s diversity. It’s important to challenge the monolith of exposure we often get, in classrooms, workplaces, and homes. A library is critical to this process and it is important to show children a variety of perspectives, through reading, at the age at which their brains are most vulnerable to forming impressions.

Though it was grueling unboxing, shelving, and packaging books out over and over again throughout the week, it gave me a new appreciation for librarians. As physically taxing as it was, it was also incredibly satisfying to know that we were able to send out great quality brand-new books to promote literacy and learning in the community.

Week 2

A challenge I faced this week was maintaining energy levels throughout the day. While the mornings were good and I felt excited for the day ahead, by afternoon I felt sluggish and lethargic. By Thursday, I was fed up with my fatigue and wanted to fix it. I realized that I had not been packing a heavy enough lunch, and started to include more nutritious options and snacks throughout the day. Coffee also helped. I also tried to improve my sleeping schedule by going to bed earlier. Another challenge I faced was with the actual work itself when I kept making small mistakes that frustrated me. This is where I realized many platitudes about work are in fact very true. It is more efficient to go slower, to take several smaller trips instead of one big one, etc. Although these sound obvious, going through the process of making mistakes and realizing why they occurred helped both my mindset going into work and the process of the work itself.
Throughout this week I also caught myself feeling down, or having a few low moments. Perhaps this was due to the tiredness mentioned earlier, feeling stuck in a rut, or just the rainy weather. Either way, I found it distracted me from work and put me in cycles of unproductivity. I haven’t figured out exactly how to combat this and I want to make sure I give myself the space to feel whatever naturally comes to me and not always jump into crisis mode. At the same time, I think I could always use more self-care time, and for me, this would mean taking time to read more, watch movies, or even just put on a facemask.

Week 3

A typical day of work at Pratt usually begins with a daily check-in with my supervisor, Maura. This is where we discuss goals for the day and oftentimes impromptu projects will come up, like one branch of the library needing more books, or another branch needing t-shirts. Since, in Maura’s own words, the work can be very reactionary, there often isn’t a set course of action every day, and work can be more spontaneous which I enjoy. Usually though, boxes will be involved, putting books into them or taking them out.
I often shelve books categorized by age into the Sixth Stack, a room used to store books for the summer reading program, as well as those books or articles for which there is only one copy left. Maura explained to me that the Central Library serves as Maryland’s State Resource Center, so when a material is down to its last copy, it is stored here.The main component of my typical day involves packaging and shipping out books to branches of the library, which is a lot more involved that it sounds. We have to determine which branches are most in need so we know who to prioritize. This is done using Beanstack, a program that keeps data of new registrations to the summer program. Then we figure out how to allocate the remaining shirts and books to each of the 21 branches, with the help of many, many spreadsheets. To my own surprise, I’ve grown to enjoy the process of keeping count and shipping out hundreds of books, as once I fall into a rhythm, it can almost be therapeutic.

In the upcoming weeks I’ll get to interact with Youth Workers, who are teen volunteers that will also help out with the program. Though I’m a little nervous since I’ve never worked with teens before, I’m also excited to engage and mentor the Youth Workers and meet new people.

Week 4

My main goal at the beginning of summer was to learn more about the library system and literacy in Baltimore. I feel like I am on track to meet these goals as I have met a lot of people from different departments and gotten to understand a bit more of how they operate. I have attended a few departmental meetings, and conducted an interview with my supervisor, both of which have helped immensely with understanding how different levels of a public library come together and function in the community, as well as how they relate to a larger public health context.
This week I also got to visit the Govans and Roland Park library branches to hand deliver books for the summer program. It was incredibly rewarding that all of the work we’ve been doing so far actually meets fruition. I loved seeing how excited branch managers got when seeing the new books, and some of them even began opening the packages right then and there. The visits also concretized what “promoting literacy” and “information equity” really meant since I actually got to see customers come in and use resources, and understand how quick the book turnover was.
A new goal that has recently emerged is trying to get more involved in the social impact programs in the library. I was at first unsure about how these programs physically manifested themselves as they seemed a little abstract to me. However, after a meeting this week with some people from the social impact department, I learned that there are tables and signs present in the libraries and no appointments are needed to engage with the programs. I learned that some peer navigators are trained in emergency trauma care, and that some stations host
narcan for addiction resources. I hope to get more involved in these programs and offer support in the coming weeks.
This week, the library hosted a summer camp with kids from pre-k to 2nd grade and starting next week I will begin helping out with the teen YouthWorks program. It’s been fun getting to work with different age groups, and mentoring kids has also become a new goal.

Week 5

As we visited more library branches to hand deliver books this week, I started noticing differences in the atmosphere of each location. Some libraries were very loud, some were larger and newer, others felt more homey and community-oriented. It’s interesting to see how geography plays a role in library demographics. This connects back to some topics we learned about in orientation concerning the Black Butterfly and White L. I learned that residential segregation and redlining impacts life down to the level of libraries, and what books or events will be more successful. My supervisor Maura conveyed to me some of the distinctions she has noticed in the branches and the history or geographical reason she thinks caused them. For example, Patterson Park receives a lot of Spanish speakers, while the Reisterstown Road branch has a large orthodox Jewish population, so careful consideration of books packaged there is needed. The Canton branch receives patrons that are younger, whiter and more liberal, so while a winter coat drive might not be needed or wanted there, a drag queen story time will (and has). A picture book on Nancy Pelosi for 0-5 year olds I noticed the other day could be sent there but maybe not elsewhere.
These types of observations relate back to personal and professional goals of mine as they center on social determinants of health. Whether I pursue a career in public health or health care, consideration of community characteristics is critical for informing decisions. While it may not be immediately obvious, libraries do play a role in social determinants of health, as equitable access to resources and information can be incredibly important both in individual and community level wellbeing. Paying attention to the smaller details of where a person is from and what makes their home unique, or taking the time to learn about the history of a place is necessary in providing better service, of any kind.

Week 7

Given how extensive the library is, I see plenty of opportunities for collaboration across other placements. One of the significant yearly projects in the Programs and Outreach department where I work is Operation Warm, a winter coat drive across the library branches. Whether we partner with the Franciscan Center to have another location for providing coats, or the Impact Hub for help promoting and expanding the project, intersection with other nonprofits can only help.
I also see potentials for intersection at the teen department which has its own Makerspace and several digital resources. Some placements involved in youth education may want to use these spaces for initiatives such as teaching coding. I have also noticed that a few of the murals around the library were done by Art with a Heart. In fact, I ran into another CIIPer from Art with a Heart on the bus a few weeks ago and found out they come to Pratt for a part of the workday to craft with kids. A benefit of using Pratt spaces is to expand reach. Since there are branches all over Baltimore and the library is free, more people may have the chance to be positively impacted.
Another opportunity for collaboration could be between the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Social Impact programs at the library. Since many people view libraries as a safe public space, partnering with an organization that makes kits for safe sex, smoking, snorting, etc., and distributing it here could alleviate stigma. We also have trained emergency staff who may want to use the Narcan kits made at the Coalition. Other Social Impact programs such as housing help and lawyers in the library could also work with other placements to refer people and continue creating a more equitable community.