June 18, 2018

The Heart of Service: Why libraries do “what we do” | Editorial

Rebecca T. MillerAs 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.

For onlookers from beyond Ferguson, the library became a sign that not all was breaking. The story of the Ferguson Municipal Public Library (FMPL) interrupted the bad news cycle, providing a glimpse of good news via coverage in major media from ABC.com to the New York Times, as well as in viral social media posts. For many in the library world, the Ferguson library became a source of pride, surfacing core service ethics that inform the work taking place in all libraries and educating the public about the fundamental work that goes hand in hand with those ethics.

Now the library that provided a much needed silver lining in Ferguson has been named the Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, and Library Journal Library of the Year. You can read more about what the team there experienced in John Berry’s cover story, “Courage in a Crisis.” Notably, FMPL was nominated by not one, not two, not even 30 people. After Steven Potter, library director and CEO of Missouri’s Mid-Continent Public Library, Independence, had the idea for a group nomination, a full 100 public library directors signed the primary nomination, which was presented on their behalf by the Urban Libraries Council, and supported by compelling, informative letters of support. What they saw, the judges saw: that FMPL offers leadership to emulate.

What has become clear is that the work in Ferguson extends well beyond a single extraordinary effort by a single person in extraordinary circumstances—though Director Scott Bonner’s leadership is unmistakable and rightly earned him a spot among LJ’s 2015 class of Movers & Shakers (LJ 3/15/15). What has happened at FMPL has been possible only through many partnerships, the dynamic use of social media and outreach, exceptional volunteer work, and flexible innovation.

Also managed with savvy: change for the library itself in light of an unprecedented outpouring of donations that have been used to enrich the collection, add a youth services position, and more. The library’s internal transformation, too, presents all libraries with an inspiring model to follow.

When I first wrote about Ferguson last September (“ ‘It’s What We Do’: Service and Sanctuary in Ferguson”), it seemed possible to many that the story would be short-lived, but it extended well beyond those first weeks. As the situation changed, the library continued to be a presence for the people of Ferguson through months of discomfort and recovery as the case around the shooting evolved. Beyond that local setting, the impact of the work done at FMPL still resonates, with Bonner modestly expressing his leadership in many forums. Moreover, FMPL’s courage in the face of its community’s crisis offers a precedent for libraries great and small facing similar challenges—which the leaders at Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore did in late April, staying open when safe, providing harbor and continuity.

FMPL’s approach to service engenders deeper engagement with all it serves, whenever it is needed, and most especially in difficult times. It does not pull back but steps in with heart. The library in Ferguson, doing “what libraries do,” made a major difference there. Its creativity and commitment made a major difference in our sphere, too, by raising the profile of all libraries as places of refuge, connection, and empowerment.


This article was published in Library Journal's June 15, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.