I am usually proud to be a librarian. Last month that feeling was deeply reinforced by the work done at Ferguson Municipal Public Library, MO, and the professional creativity and focus expressed by Director Scott Bonner over weeks of duress in that community.
The news coming out of Ferguson was heartbreaking, maddening, and all too often confusing following the August 9 death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer. The incident surfaced racial tensions in Ferguson, and demonstrators took to the streets to protest the shooting and subsequent militaristic tactics by local police, including the use of tear gas. The situation intensified, with sometimes violent clashes between protesters and police that included two nonfatal shootings, many injuries, and hundreds of arrests.
In the midst of this chaotic scene many positive forces were at work, calling for peaceful demonstrations, justice for Brown and his family, and an end to the racism at work in the culture. Nonetheless, the disruption extended for weeks, altering daily life with curfews restricting public movement and delaying the start of the school year for the approximately 12,000 youngsters who attend the Ferguson-Florissant School District.
Good news emerged from the scene in the form of calm leadership from the Ferguson Library, which remained open and responsive to needs large and small in spite of a dramatic and no doubt frightening situation. It used social media to help spread the word that the library was there for everyone to use as a sanctuary for respite, reflection, and learning.
Bonner, new to the directorship this summer, told LJ that he monitored the scene via the news and Twitter to ensure it was safe to open each day. When Carrie Pace, an elementary school teacher, approached him about providing an educational program for the youth who had no school to attend, the library created a school on the fly. Nearby, the Florissant Valley Branch of the St. Louis County Library also stepped up educational programming and provided donated free lunches for kids. The Ferguson program ramped up quickly, according to Bonner. It ultimately served up to 200 kids per day, with dozens of teachers (including many from Teach for America) and other volunteers pitching in until the schools reopened near the end of August.
Throughout, Bonner has spoken with modesty and conviction about the library role, taking the decisions needed in stride and pointing to the essence of library work. “It was a big program, and in dramatic circumstances, but what we did was the same thing any library does, every day. Not notable, just noticeable,” Bonner said in a comment to a blog post by R. David Lankes. “As I keep saying: this is a library. It’s what we do.”
Exactly. We have seen this same ethic and the elbow grease needed to make it reality, time and time again, in public libraries across the country and the world. Libraries have been and are key local responders in the aftermath of storms—think hurricanes Sandy, Katrina, and Rita, for example—and in the center of political turmoil. The current conflict in the Ukraine is just one instance. There, writes Mantra Roy on Webjunction, public libraries are helping displaced people with information and assistance contacting families via Skype, scanning documents, finding housing, and much more.
This is the essence of public library work—helping people find the information they need, in whatever setting. To see it expressed in such extreme situations, however, is a reminder of the power of libraries and the awesome responsibility that comes with being a librarian. It is not diminished by being a standard.
As someone who is motivated by the belief that libraries can save lives, sometimes in the simplest of ways, I am proud of the steadfast library service delivered in Ferguson. I am moved that at the core of the social and civic unrest that left the community feeling unsafe at worst and unsettled at best one institution provided a refuge, not by changing but by doing what it was created to do. I am thankful that the public library—there for everyone—let the people of Ferguson know they had a caring, attuned resource at hand and that it stayed open.