On November 24 a grand jury in Ferguson, MO, delivered its verdict on the August 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a Ferguson police officer. The St. Louis County grand jury chose not to bring criminal charges against the officer, Darren Wilson; the decision, which was announced just after 8 p.m. CST, set off a night of protests and civil unrest, the most violent including arson, shattered windows, injuries, and, as of press time, a possible murder.
During the nearly four months of unrest since Brown was killed, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library (FMPL) has consistently stepped up to help the town’s citizens, especially its youngest members. Last summer the Ferguson-Florissant School District postponed its schools’ opening day, originally scheduled for August 14, out of fear of violence. Until schools eventually opened on August 25, FPL opened its branches to the district’s teachers, allowing them to set up activities and instruction for students in the library.
As Ferguson awaited the grand jury’s verdict, Governor Jay Nixon had pre-emptively declared a 30-day state of emergency November 17 in anticipation of unrest in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, and the surrounding area. As predicted, demonstrations flared through the night into Tuesday morning, mainly centered around the Ferguson Police Department and the site of Brown’s shooting. As of Tuesday morning 61 arrests had been made in Ferguson and another 21 in St. Louis, and Governor Nixon had ordered additional National Guard reinforcements. Demonstrations occurred across the country as well, in cities such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, and Philadelphia.
THE LIBRARY STEPS UP
It was announced the Monday night of the verdict that schools would be closed the following day, and on November 25 once again FMPL opened its doors to the district’s children and their teachers. Scott Bonner, library director of Ferguson Municipal Public Library District, said that while numbers weren’t as high as in August, the library hosted “scores” of children, as well as serving as a safe place for the neighborhood’s adults.
“I’m seeing a mix of moods,” he told LJ. “Our volunteers are excited and optimistic, and here to help, and then I have patrons who come in and literally hold my hands and cry—they just needed someone to hold onto and talk to. And everything in between, including people who are doing the regular walk-in, walk-out stuff.” But, he said, the mood was “a lot more emotional and taut than usual.”
Bonner is FMPL’s lone full-time librarian, working with another 10–11 part-time staff members. When the school closings were announced FMPL put out a call on social media for help, and on Tuesday Teach for America and other organizations responded with more than 50 volunteers. Operation Food Search, a local food bank, served lunch for children who would ordinarily eat at school.
The smallest children, Bonner noted, were happy to come in and do their activities. Recent events were harder on teenagers, however. Middle- and high-schoolers tended to act out, giving voice to their anxiety and anger. But while Bonner had expelled a few teens earlier in the week, he said, “Today we haven’t had to kick anyone out.”
A book swap planned for Tuesday night was canceled, as the library decided to close at 4 p.m. for safety reasons. “We don’t know if it’s going to be another night like last night,” Bonner told LJ. “There were people trying to kick in the door of the library last night after we closed.” The book swap, which had been the first event planned by FMPL’s new Teen Council, has been postponed until December.
Appropriately enough, FMPL was one of the galleries hosting art exhibit entitled “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” The show was organized by the Alliance of Black Art Galleries to give local artists an opportunity to respond to Brown’s killing. opened October 17 and 18 and will run through December 20. Artwork was exhibited in more than a dozen galleries throughout the area.
AN OUTPOURING OF SUPPORT
While library staff and volunteers did their best to make neighborhood children feel at home, FMPL’s Twitter feed (@fergusonlibrary) Tuesday showed an outpouring of love and support from all over. In addition, calls for action on Twitter, some utilizing the hashtag #whatlibrariesdo, resulted in a huge spike in PayPal donations to the library. (Update: donations have topped $350,000; for reference, the library’s operating budget is $400,000.) “It’s been kind of phenomenal,” Bonner said.
Book donations remain steady as well: when FMPL first opened its doors to students in August Angie Manfredi, head of youth services for Los Alamos County Library System, NM, started a Twitter campaign soliciting books for the library. She created a wishlist for FMPL on Powell’s, which has since been filled and added to. The effort continues to be a great success, and once all the books received have been cataloged, says Bonner, “Thanks to her efforts, we’re going to have one of the strongest collections in the state for civic engagement, civil rights history, and recovering from trauma.”
Librarians across the country are working to help support students and educators as well. A St. Louis school librarian has created a LibGuide for resources about the Brown shooting, and the Twitter hashtag #FergusonSyllabus provides a wide range of links.
Schools had been planned to close Wednesday through Friday for Thanksgiving, so FPL will not be holding classes during that time. But if schools are closed next week, said Bonner, “we’ll do it again.” Bonner reinforced his steadfast approach to the library’s role. “What we’re doing is just what libraries do,” he emphasized to LJ. “We’re in a particularly dramatic situation, but we’re doing the same thing everyone does. And that’s because our libraries are awesome. We’re all about the community, and our doors are wide open to every human being in Ferguson.”