November 24, 2015

Ferguson Libraries Step Up to Serve Community in Turmoil

Libraries in the Ferguson, MO area provided educational services and creative programs for children and families—and sanctuary for all ages—while the start of school was postponed for two weeks because of unrest in the area.

As demonstrations continued in response to the shooting death by Ferguson police officer of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, the Ferguson-Florissant School District decided to delay the schools’ opening for an indeterminate number of days.

The protests of Browns death have involved the use of tear gas by police and resulted in two more non-fatal shootings by police. Brown’s death has brought to the surface racial tensions in Ferguson, a mostly black suburb of St. Louis, which has a police department made up of 53 officers, only three of whom are non-white.

The schools eventually opened their doors as of Monday, August 25, according to the New York Times.

Ferguson Library

Last week, Ferguson Library created an “ad hoc school on the fly” while the public schools were closed, where children could be taught by working and retired teachers, with volunteers helping them manage the students. Grouped by their grade level, children learned math and science in the mornings and arts in the afternoons.

“We started the program Monday, people started hearing about it Tuesday, by Wednesday I had everyone in the world calling up trying to help,” said Scott Bonner, the library director. “This is a concrete example of the community coming together for the good of the community.”

Carrie Pace, an elementary art school teacher, came to the library director with the idea of creating a temporary educational program with no idea how many students would actually participate. Near the start there were about 40 students and by last Thursday about 150 students participated. As a result, the library started using the Baptist church up the street to house some of the classes.

In addition, several community groups approached the library to provide special programs for the students, from teaching them how to create Tibetan prayer flags to presentations by scientists and artists.

Director Bonner said that this is the type of work that libraries were made to do, providing continuing education, cultural enrichment, and being a meeting space for the community.

“This is totally, exactly, right in the wheel house of what any library does, what every library does. We have a dramatic moment, and a dramatic circumstance caught the nation’s attention, but this is exactly what libraries do every day,” he said.

Bonner, who became the library’s director just last month, stayed up until 2:30 a.m. every night scanning news outlets and Twitter feeds to make sure that the protests were far enough from the library that it was safe to keep it open. He wanted the library to be a “quiet oasis” separate from the demonstrations where people could get water, charge their phones, and feel welcome regardless of their views on the issues.

In addition, the library is accepting book donations through Powell’s books that will help diversify the collection, which is hard because of the library’s limited budget. The project was spearheaded by Angie Manfredi, a blogger who contacted Bonner about creating a list of desired books and crowdsourcing donors online. So far the library has received 20 books with more than 50 more expected to arrive. Manfredi is planning to create another “Books for Ferguson” booklist to be approved by Bonner soon.

Florissant Valley Branch

The Florissant Valley Branch of the St. Louis County Library also provided family-oriented programs that started last Tuesday. It offered fun activities that included letting children and parents play with art supplies, board games, and LEGOs.

Children play with LEGOs at the Florissant Valley Branch

Children play with LEGOs at the Florissant Valley Branch

And in partnership with the Magic House, an interactive children’s museum, the Florissant Valley Branch was able to offer free lunches and make and take projects by extending its program with Operation Food Search.

“I think it’s easy to get very caught up, ‘Oh, these awful thing has happened and what’s going to bring us together?’ Well, there are just so many people in our community that are working to make that a reality,” said Laura Kasak, Florissant Valley branch manager.

In the future, Kasak hopes to be able to offer counseling services in the library “to help with the healing process” for members of the community. She is currently talking with potential partners like the Lutheran Child and Family Services to make that happen.

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  1. Librarians are amazing.