The Ferguson Municipal Public Library (FMPL), MO, became a model for all libraries in the way it reacted to the crisis and the aftermath of riots brought on by the shooting of Michael Brown, a young African American man, by local police.
The little FMPL, with its part-time staff, a growing cadre of volunteers and partners, and its director and sole full-time employee, was the one agency in town that stayed open to serve and support all the people of Ferguson. The library quickly became a safe haven and expressed a peaceful resolve, becoming a critical community anchor. Proud of FMPL, librarians nationwide reacted, as did media large and small, and all who heard of the library’s calm leadership.
“The Ferguson Library provided the example for all of us to live up to. It behaved as all of us hope that we would behave if confronted by a similar situation,” writes Steven V. Potter, director and CEO of the Mid-Continent Library System in nearby Independence. All too soon, that example was called into play, as Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library looked to FMPL for a model in April 2015, when the city was racked by sometimes-violent protest following the funeral of Freddie Gray, an African American man who died in police custody.
FMPL Director Scott Bonner himself says what FMPL did is what libraries do after tornadoes in Joplin, during hurricanes in New England, and at many other times. “I think libraries step up all the time. There is always tension between do you open to serve your public or do you play it safe,” Bonner says.
Inspired by the ongoing creative response in Ferguson and the way that work has elevated the public perception of all libraries, Potter initiated a nomination for FMPL for the Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, and Library Journal 2015 Library of the Year, which was submitted by the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) and signed by more than 100 directors of the most prestigious U.S. libraries. From a competitive field, the judges selected Ferguson.
A communitywide crisis
Ferguson, MO, is an older suburb of St. Louis, founded in 1855. Currently, 67 percent of the 21,000 people who live there are African American, a dramatic shift from the one percent reported in 1970. Approximately 25 percent of Ferguson residents have income below the poverty level.
In August 2014, Michael Brown, a young African American man, was shot and killed by a member of the Ferguson Police Department. The circumstances around the incident and the manner in which the police handled the situation after the shooting were controversial at the time and remain so. The case ignited protests and vigils as well as looting and rioting, with skirmishes between protesters and police, on-the-scene media, and others in authority. Gov. Jay Nixon imposed curfews that were sometimes ignored and called in the National Guard. All of this was featured in the national, and global, news.
In November 2014, when the grand jury failed to indict the policeman responsible for the shooting, another wave of protests and riots broke out in Ferguson. Calls for further investigation of the Ferguson administration came from all levels of government.
The schools were closed, the streets were in chaos, and the emotions of the residents were at a breaking point.
FMPL, concerned for the safety of its citizens, especially children, again stayed open throughout the crisis, providing a place for learning and in which students and teachers could meet to create a level of normalcy. FMPL became the center of community support. It was where people came to get help.
Emphasizing its relationship to the people of the community, FMPL placed signs outside the building announcing that it stands with citizens and their rights at a time when police battle protesters.
When the first outbreak of civil unrest occurred in August 2014, Bonner was in just his fifth week on the job. It would have been easier to close the library as many expected. Instead, Bonner had the courage and commitment to the community to keep FMPL open and to partner with teachers and community agencies to provide education, information, and emotional sustenance to the citizenry, including its children.
As the story unfolded and the library stayed open, FMPL became an icon of constructive engagement and Bonner an unofficial ambassador of this important aspect of the library’s mission in a community in turmoil.
Long scary days
FMPL announced that it would stay open “as long as library staff feel that their patrons are safe there.”
“I defined the library mission as widely as I could. I wanted to look back at this time and regret saying ‘yes’ too much instead of saying ‘no’ too much,” says Bonner, a philosophy he continues to implement. “I’ve done a lot of thinking about the library’s mission and how broadly we can define it so that I can say ‘yes,’ and not be gatekeeping and stopping things,” Bonner says. “I want to say ‘yes’ to everything I can. We’re going to run the library too hot, things are going to break. Things are going to go sideways. I’d rather do too much and have things go sideways that do too little.”
So far, however, he hasn’t regretted saying yes to staying open.
“It was scary a lot, but the scariest times were when the library was closed. During open hours it has been safe, except twice. On the morning of August 11, when there was a big protest and the police were pushing the crowds up the road right past the library, I was worried. It happened again when the grand jury announcements came. Otherwise, we have been open normal hours.”
However, Bonner’s own hours were anything but normal in the heat of those events: “When everything was going crazy…. Basically if I was awake, I was here,” says Bonner, who is also among the 2015 class of LJ Movers & Shakers.
A place for the kids
Art teacher Carrie Pace from the Walnut Grove School asked Bonner if the library space could be used by teachers to provide an educational experience for Ferguson children during that difficult time. The school district closed indefinitely at the beginning of the school year, so FMPL created an “ad hoc school on the fly,” with volunteers and teachers and programs for children centered in one area of the library.
Sign-ins and sign-outs were required by the same caregiver at the beginning and end of each day. Teachers and volunteers worked to keep the children engaged in learning, while the children worked through a defined curriculum appropriate to their grade. The demand grew so high that the program was expanded and more space was found in the nearby Baptist Church.
In the beginning, roughly 40 students came to the classes, but three days later the enrollment grew to 150, and by the end of the week, more than 200 students and over 100 teachers and volunteers participated in both locations.
“Families depended on sending kids to school. The program was as much for the parents and families as it was for the kids. Families really needed it, and they really appreciated it,” says Pace. Although the attendance grew to more than 200, the same children didn’t show up every day. According to Pace, some came all week and many for just a couple of days.
“I expected a library to step up and do this sort of thing. That was the first place I turned to because I kind of expected it would step up,” said Pace when asked whether she was surprised by FMPL’s quick action to get the program going. “I thought libraries could play the role that it did. I wasn’t surprised that Scott would open the library doors. What I was really amazed at was how he didn’t just say ‘go ahead’ [but] got himself totally involved. He really organized events, got donations, and all sorts of things.”
The program continued after schools had reopened and teachers returned. The staff at the St. Louis headquarters of Teach for America (TFA) stepped in to take over. Abby Crawford, managing director of teacher leadership development at TFA, is from the Ferguson community.
“The teachers had to go back to work in their schools, so we at TFA were able to come in and help keep the program open. Some of our staff and alumni partnered with the library and Carrie to work in the library,” Crawford says.
“Most inspiring was that Scott Bonner absolutely understood…. He could have just closed the library and waited out the situation like everyone else did. He clearly didn’t want to do that. Each day we would see how peaceful it was and decide whether to stay open. Once we decided, child after child came to the library,” Crawford says.
Later on, magic shows, crafts, and other activities kept the kids entertained and alleviated pressure on caregivers and parents.
FMPL did many things to support the emotional recovery of the people of Ferguson. The library created Healing Kits, each a backpack with the library logo on it. Inside are books and worksheets about coping, source material on civil rights history, a list of resources for adults to get free or inexpensive mental health information nearby, and, of course, a teddy bear. Patrons could check out the whole thing and later return the backpack and the books but keep the teddy bear and the worksheets.
FMPL offered special outreach to adults, through volunteer social workers and community engagement opportunities. All were offered to the public through social media and at the library.
FMPL also served as one of the galleries hosting an art exhibit entitled “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” The show was organized by the Alliance of Black Art Galleries to give local artists the chance to respond to Brown’s killing. It opened October 17, 2014, and ran through December 20. Artwork was exhibited in more than a dozen galleries throughout the area.
FMPL also created or hosted scores of programs specifically to help Ferguson’s local businesses recover. The U.S. Small Business Administration was invited to set up at the library to provide emergency loans after Governor Nixon declared the area to be in a state of economic emergency. FMPL hosted a help session from the state agency that handles insurance and held listening sessions for small businesses to assist those who suffered damage during the unrest to get together with nonprofits that could help them with recovery and its costs.
Bonner is happy to point out that everything FMPL did was in partnership with other local agencies: “little partnerships here, there, and everywhere.” There was the one with TFA, another with Story Corps, FMPL’s colleague institutions in the nine-member Municipal Library Consortium of St. Louis County to which it belongs, and many more.
Library of the Year 2015 Judges
LJ thanks the following individuals who volunteered their valuable time to help select
the 2015 Library of the Year:
Gale Bacon, Director, Belgrade Community Library, MT, LJ’s 2015 Best Small Library
Larry Neal, Director, Clinton-Macomb Public Library, MI, and President, Public Library Association
Lucie Osborn, County Librarian, Laramie County Library System, WY, LJ’s 2008
Library of the Year
Brian Risse, VP–National Sales Manager, Public Libraries, Gale Cengage Learning
The panel also includes LJ’s John N. Berry III, Matt Enis, Rebecca T. Miller, Lisa Peet,
and Meredith Schwartz
Donors and the board respond
In response to the library’s actions, donations poured in from all over the community—and, indeed, the country. The library used social media to coordinate communication, and the story—one of the few pieces of good news and concrete action that far-off observers could take to bolster the community—quickly went viral and led to some $450,000 in donations, more than double FMPL’s budget from property taxes.
In addition to individual contributions, FMPL has new grants from the State of Missouri and private foundations, as well as contributions of books from authors across the globe. Recently, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and his wife, Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, teamed up with Hewlett-Packard (HP) to give to both Ferguson and Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt nearly $170,000 worth of computers and other equipment.
Since the trouble, FMPL has found the resources to hire a second full-time staff member, a children’s services/program librarian, according to Steve Wegert, treasurer of the FMPL board and former mayor of Ferguson. Additionally, the library has the services of two paralibrarians. Says Wegert, “Most of the donations we have received…have been in the $10–$25 range, but some of the larger ones, like that one from HP and its board, will allow us to do things we have needed to do for a long time.”
“The library continues to be a kind of shining star of positiveness coming out of Ferguson,” Wegert says. “If nothing else, what our community has been through with this, and how the library has assisted in bringing some normalcy back to Ferguson, says libraries are absolutely relevant now,” Wegert continues.
“Our board has been incredibly supportive of what Scott Bonner has been able to do…. It is always a challenge to run a facility with limited dollars. Scott Bonner’s arrival breathed some new life into the library, new ideas, using what funds we have to do some new things. He led the charge and our staff was up to it and put in tremendous hours,” says Wegert.
Cathy Bindbeutel, president of the FMPL board and a retired teacher and lifelong Ferguson resident, says, “These unfortunate events really did change my idea of what a library ought to be. The fact that the library stayed open and welcomed the students and teachers when school didn’t start brought an amazing response. The library has just done so much. We have benefited financially and in many other ways, in good publicity. We are so happy to have Scott Bonner, and proud of the way he handled this,” Bindbeutel says.
The one that worked…
“Some believe that the Ferguson Municipal Public Library was the only thing that worked during the Ferguson crisis…. If ever faced with the same challenges, I know all libraries will look to Scott Bonner and the Ferguson Library. If confronted with similar situations, we would all strive to perform in the same way. If this isn’t the definition of a Library of the Year, I’m not sure what is,” writes Potter. Our judges agree.
Library of the Year 2015 Special Mention
Many of the nominees in this competition demonstrate the innovation and excellence practiced every day by U.S. and Canadian libraries. Two other libraries in particular deserve special mention for featuring the service philosophy and dedication to community that signify a Library of the Year.
NASHVILLE PUBLIC LIBRARY
Kent Oliver, Director
Nashville Public Library (NPL) serves a population of 658,602 from 21 locations. Nearly half that many people, 302,133, attended a program last year, and NPL saw 3.5 million visits and 4.6 million in total circulation.
NPL created an award-winning collaboration with the city’s public schools known as Limitless Libraries, which has been tied to increased test scores. Using school IDs as public library cards, students can order items to be delivered to their school the next day. NPL is building a joint ILS between NPL and the schools.
The library surpasses limits in many other arenas, too. It houses an after-school intervention network, the Nashville After Zone Alliance, in which kids take classes in bike repair, fashion design, art, robotics, and more. Plans are in the works to expand the initiative to more than 15,000 students, with a focus on increased reading scores. NPL also wishes to expand its Bringing Books to Life program, which trains teachers to incorporate storytelling and reading into every part of the classroom, via NPL’s full-time puppeteers. As a result, 94 percent of teachers use more literature-based themes in their classes, and 90 percent consider NPL a curriculum-building resource. Parent workshops train parents to integrate books and reading into their homes. As a result, 97 percent of parents do more literacy-related activities at home, and 73 percent use the library more. NPL will soon open teen creativity zones called Studio NPL at its Main, East, and Madison branches, reaching 15,000 middle and high school students.
NPL’s efforts aren’t just for kids. The library developed its digital collection aggressively, spending 12–15 percent of its materials budget. Last year alone, digital use jumped from 16 percent to 23 percent of total circulation. The system also made a data-driven decision to drop floating collections, leading to more than 11,000 additional checkouts in three months. The library’s mobile computer training lab, job search lab, and seed exchange serve the myriad needs and interests of its community, as does its work with the city’s Pathway for New Americans initiative. The recently established Library Homelessness Advisory Council helps NPL serve all its patrons. One of NPL’s important innovations is the Civil Rights Room, “a public living room, where civic education, community conversations, and storytelling serve as tools of change,” as NPL describes it. Recently the room hosted special civil rights training for Metro Nashville Police Academy trainees.
Says judge Brian Risse, VP, national sales manager, public libraries, for Gale Cengage, “NPL stood out for [its] willingness to…share the outcomes generated by [its] efforts.” Those efforts, he added, “showed a total commitment to the library as the educational hub in the community.”
Judge Gale Bacon, director, Belgrade Community Library, MT, LJ’s Best Small Library in America 2015, agrees. “Nashville Public Library touches [its] community from womb to tomb.”
ORANGE COUNTY LIBRARY SYSTEM,
Mary Anne Hodel, Library Director/CEO
The Orange County Library System (OCLS) serves a large population, circulating nearly 14 million items last year and hosting almost eight million visitors at its 15 locations (plus another nearly 3.7 million online). As with Nashville, among its innovations is a partnership with local schools: since 2004, every librarian proactively connects with various levels of elementary school personnel. In addition, a newly created position of curriculum specialist develops, implements, and evaluates youth activities, aligning events to state standards. Also aligned with state standards is the Skills Challenge series, computer-based programs that develop reading, problem solving, and technology skills using Early Literacy Stations. A tech club and Camp Savvy summer computer classes continue STEM learning. For the littlest learners, the library offers on-site programming to help preschoolers develop skills they will need in kindergarten via songs and stories; to supplement those, or for kids whose caregivers can’t attend, OCLS’s children’s department and teachers from the Orange County School District received a grant to create a kindergarten readiness app for preschoolers. Since its introduction in mid-2014, it has been downloaded by 657 users.
For adult learners, the library boasts Lifelong Learning divisions, which target residents at different stages of their lives: as students, new parents (as well as parents of students), job seekers, entrepreneurs, empty-nesters, and retirees.
To help serve all those life stages, in early 2014 OCLS opened the Dorothy Lumley Melrose Center for Technology, Innovation, and Creativity. This 26,000 square foot facility at the downtown Orlando location offers audio and video production studios, photographic studios, simulation labs, and 3-D scanning and printing. It also contains STEM equipment and a fab lab and offers classes on how to use the software and hardware, as well as biweekly Tech Talks on topics ranging from “Wearable Technology” to “Confessions of a Serial Entrepreneur.”
The Chickasaw Branch, scheduled to open in summer 2015, is designed with classrooms and presentation areas for technology training, a dual purpose fab lab and language lab, coworking space, and outdoor spots. A dedicated language lab was opened at the Southeast Branch, and OCLS recently hired an ESL specialist to support its extensive language-learning programming. Finally, OCLS turned its teaching and technology focus to a sometimes-overlooked audience: its own staff. An internally developed site called How You Say It helps staff with verbiage they can use when discussing challenging or misunderstood policies and procedures and has proved a valuable coaching resource.
Says judge Gale Bacon, “OCLS understands the priority for staff communication and development. The staff-directed learning portal as well as staff intranet page is a model to American libraries.”