All eyes are on the Library of Congress (LC) as the iconic institution approaches what promises to be a transformational time. When long-standing Librarian of Congress James H. Billington announced his plan to retire in January 2016, bets started flying on who would be the best new leader. The job, to be filled by President Barack Obama’s appointment, with confirmation from Congress, is an exciting and challenging one.
As last summer waned, the library in Ferguson, MO, seemed an unlikely source for a most inspiring illustration of librarianship in action. The library was running on a shoestring budget, and the new director (and sole full-time employee) had taken over scant weeks before. But when that community was wracked by violent protest in the wake of the August 9 death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by a police officer, the library emerged as a critical asset, staying open and creating programs on the fly to respond to the turmoil. The library countered the chaos and fear with calm reassurance that the people of Ferguson were supported by a shared resource that was also a “quiet oasis”—a safe place to be, to recover their bearings, but also to learn more about what was happening and why.
An inspirational level of collaboration has been undertaken between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. A memorandum of understanding (MOU) signed at the end of 2014 has set in motion deeper cross-cultural collaborations and opened opportunities to expand efforts already under way between these sister cities divided by one of the busiest international borders in the world.
The legislative budget season triggers a tense cycle for libraries, and this year is no different. State library funding comes under attack, and library advocates mount a defense. Where wisdom prevails, the lines are upheld or even increased, bolstering the key infrastructure libraries bring to our communities. Where short-term thinking trumps strategic insight, the lines get trimmed and trimmed, gaining a relatively minor lift to the state’s bottom line while putting at risk small but significant programs that interconnect our valuable public library resources—and serve as a critical conduit for federal funds to reinforce service.
The 2016 presidential primary activity and election may provide libraries with an unmatched opportunity to show their stuff. As candidates officially jump into the race, voters are already inundated by an unprecedented volume of information and perspectives—not to mention the onslaught of misinformation and distractions. As the pace heats up, potential voters will need help engaging in the process, and voters will need more help than ever sorting out the facts on the real issues and learning what they need to make their own decisions.
We talk a lot about resilience when we discuss library sustainability. It is one of the trends identified by Miguel Figueroa, an LJ 2005 Mover & Shaker, in the recent “Forecasting the Future of Libraries” report. It encompasses a broad swath of library work—dynamic programming, deep and robust community commitment to the well-being of the institution, and facility design that can withstand the very real threats of extreme weather change that comes with global warming. Resilience also means creating buildings that don’t drain precious natural resources.
I knew I had met a creative force when I called Gale Bacon to let her know that the Belgrade Community Library, MT, had been named LJ’s 2015 Best Small Library in America, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She was enthusiastic but cool-headed on the phone, immediately cooking away on ideas for how to leverage the award. After meeting her at a celebration at the library in February, I am in awe of this director’s savvy and dedication to expanding support for her library. She took what anyone would consider a success story for Belgrade and turned it into a success story for the whole state—while keeping the people of Belgrade front and center.
There was much excitement when the James L. Knight Foundation opened a News Challenge for Libraries last September—for good reason. Libraries were getting a highly visible shout-out from this national foundation, and library enthusiasts were being asked to share ideas in a setting that encouraged collaboration to deepen the impact of library work. The process surfaced mission-focused ingenuity across the library landscape, highlighted the smarts in our field, and should serve as motivation for leadership to find new ways to enable latent capacity in our libraries to serve our communities better.
Librarians and libraries are essential to discourse about intellectual freedoms. Now we have more work to do in light of violent efforts to curtail such rights, perhaps most notably the January 7 attack on the offices of Paris’s weekly Charlie Hebdo. For me, these events brought our work to date into high relief but also intensified a sense of urgency about what librarians can do to defend a richer understanding of the value of freedom of inquiry and expression.