March 18, 2018

Public, School Libraries Crucial to Flint’s Recovery

Flint River Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Flint River, MI
Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Since the revelation that water in Flint, MI, is contaminated with toxic levels of lead, public and private institutions, individuals, and civic organizations have been stepping up to help across the country. In addition to the infrastructure changes that now need to be made to the city’s water system, much of the immediate relief effort centers around information: on health hazards, residents’ legal rights, and what the city needs to do going forward. The Flint Public Library (FPL) has positioned itself as a source of reliable information, and the remaining libraries in Flint’s public high schools have been instrumental in helping local teenagers better understand what their city is going through.

The seventh largest city in Michigan, Flint has seen hard times since the late 1960s, exacerbated by the deindustrialization of the 1980s when the automobile manufacturing plants that sustained the area systematically closed down. It has remained in an economic depression since the end of the 20th century, and is currently in its second state of financial emergency since 2002.

In April 2014, Flint switched its water source from treated water drawn from Lake Huron and the Detroit River to water from the Flint River. Almost immediately, residents began to complain about the water’s color, smell, and taste, and by October General Motors had stopped using Flint water in its engine plant after noticing corrosion on newly machined parts. The city responded with a boil-water advisory. As tests began to reveal high lead levels in individual homes, conflicts arose between the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which denied that the contamination was systemwide. Although the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department offered to reconnect Flint to its system at no additional charge in early 2015, city officials declined.

A test of the city’s water supply by Virginia Tech University researcher Marc Edwards revealed widespread lead contamination. This was followed up by a study by Mona Hanna-Attisha, a researcher at Flint’s Hurley Medical Center, which found high lead levels in the blood of local children. In October, Flint reconnected to Detroit’s water system, and Governor Snyder created an independent task force to investigate the extent of the crisis. Genesee County declared a state of emergency in January of this year, and the state of Michigan followed suit. Snyder activated the National Guard to help distribute bottled water, and later admitted in an interview with the National Journal that his administration’s handling of the crisis was “a disaster.”

It is estimated that between 6,000 and 12,000 children have been exposed to high levels of lead over the past 18 months. Toxic lead levels were found in the water at three area schools, one of which tested at more than six times the federal limit—according to the World Health Organization, even the lowest levels of lead toxicity (10 micrograms per deciliter) are associated with decreased IQ level, hearing, and growth; as well as impaired nerve function. The area has also seen an uptick in Legionnaires’ disease.


Amidst the flurry of media attention and information, FPL is working hard to address the community’s needs. The flow is coordinated by local history librarian Michael Madden, who vets all news forwarded via email and social media, and lead librarian Diane O’Keefe, who spent 20 years as medical librarian and is able to provide accurate medical information.

A shelf in the reference room is dedicated to handouts on the water crisis, which are also distributed to staff members who cover telephone and in-person reference questions. However, said FPL director Kay Schwartz, “I’m not sure how many people think to call the library for a reference question of this type at this point. There have been lots of other instructions about places to call for water information.”

Even these are not always able to handle the information’s short shelf life. For instance, water distribution times and locations are supposed to be handled by the city’s 211 service, but much of that information is local and time-sensitive, and 211 is often bypassed in favor of email, local news, and social media. “You’ll hear on ABC 12 News This Morning that such-and-so group is going to be distributing water tomorrow only, at a certain location between the hours of x and y,” explained Schwartz. “During a crisis like this you get an information storm.”

There are several information roles the library is well positioned to fill, however, such as giving historical context. “For example,” Schwartz told LJ, triggered by a news item at the end of January, “we had six or eight people call in one day with question about when in the past—like in the 1960s and 70s—did Flint actually go to Detroit water? They called the library because they knew that we had this historical information.” The library was originally founded in 1851, before Flint was even incorporated, and FPL considers local record-keeping one of its core missions.

In addition, in light of local government’s failings, people are looking to other sources to trust and FPL is able to point them in the right direction. “[Patrons] do not want information from our government, especially the state of Michigan,” noted Schwartz. “They say they’ve been lied to, so if the information that we’re giving them [originates from] the state government, they say, ‘give me information from some other source, please.’”

One source residents do want to hear from is Hurley Medical Center, home base of Hanna-Attisha (who will be honored, along with Flint whistleblower LeeAnne Walters, with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in May). “Any info that is released by Hurley Medical Center is like gold,” said Schwartz. “That’s what they want.” People are also interested in reports from civil engineer Edwards who, along with his team from Virginia Tech, conducted one of the early studies on Flint water long before the state or federal government were willing to admit there was a problem.


While their resources are severely stretched, Flint’s school libraries have a part to play as well.

Donna Comstock-Herman is the teacher librarian/media specialist at Flint’s Northwestern High School, one of the two public high schools serving the Flint Community School District. Her students, she noted, are all inner-city kids whose home economic status ranges from lower middle class to poverty; the district provides free lunch for all students. Cases of bottled water have been donated to the city’s schools, and classrooms are provided with as much water as they need.

When students come to the library to research or talk about the crisis, Comstock-Herman refers them to the school Wellness Center, where they can have their blood drawn and lead levels checked. They are concerned, she told LJ: “They can’t help but hear it in the news. They can’t help but see what their families are going through. So they come in and they ask.” She helps them look up facts online, and most have been satisfied with a basic level of information. “Most of them are not concerned with the in-depth; they just want to know that they’re OK,” Comstock-Herman said.


The crisis will have reverberations for years to come. “We are going to be dealing with, basically, a generation of young people who may or may not have been exposed to lead,” said Schwartz. Because lead has a short life in the bloodstream, it is impossible to tell which—or how many—children were affected. “So what we have to do is assume that every single child in our city may have been exposed,” Schwartz explained, “and we have to go through all the early interventions and school interventions that those kids are going to need in order to develop as best they can. We need the nutrition [information], we need the early education, we need parents to read to their children—to understand how important that is—to do all the things that the Every Child Ready to Read program helps parents learn to do.”

The library will be enlisting partners in the school districts, the Head Start programs, and the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network, and has already begun implementing the Every Child Ready to Read program. The goal is to persuade every parent in the community with young children to enroll their children in the available programs and to get early intervention activities happening in their homes as well.

The issue, said Schwartz, will be to reach parents already stretched to capacity, both by financial hardship and by the necessities of living in a city that may be without safe drinking water for some time—while the city has switched back to Detroit water, residents will still need their corroded pipes replaced before they feel safe. “Let’s picture a family that is living on not a whole lot of money,” explained Schwartz. “They are spending their time running around town getting water. They have to go to the fire station [or] the church to get water. How are they going to arrange their lives to get their kid to Head Start, or to get their kid to the library, or even have the wherewithal to be doing this talking, singing, reading, writing, playing? It’s a huge challenge for people in poverty. We have a big, big challenge ahead of us.”

Within the schools, Comstock-Herman predicts that as Flint’s elementary school children move on to high school, “they’re going to need a lot of support and help. And the [school] library’s going to be central in that, both for the teachers and for the students.” It will serve as a quiet space for teens to work outside the typically noisy classrooms, and a place to be tutored.

“They [will] need learning support because of the effects of the lead, but they [will] also need the emotional and psychological support that they can overcome this,” Comstock-Herman said. “That’s probably going to be the biggest role the library is going to play—one of encouragement in addition to providing learning support.”


While the city has been the recipient of both financial aid and bottled water, “The very best way that people can help at this point is to contribute to the Flint Child Health and Development Fund,” said Schwartz. “That fund is something that will stay in our community to help organizations that are going to be working on the health and development of Flint children long after the media has left Flint, and long after we are able to drink water out of our taps. It’s so overwhelming and touching to see all the people who want to help.”

She added, “I don’t want to tell people ‘Don’t send water,’ but really what we need is funding for child development and child health.”

The library will also be instrumental in helping preserve Flint’s story. Madden has been collecting citations to various media outlets, many of which are already archiving coverage on dedicated pages on their own sites so users can access the news chronologically, said Schwartz. “We’ve benefited from the media producing those archives on their own, and we can link to them.”

She also hopes to leverage the local Summer Youth Initiative (SYI), which places teen workers in organizations around the community, to help archive materials relating to the water crisis. The library has hosted SYI workers each summer for the past ten years, and this year, said Schwartz, “our plan is to have our cadre of…students making the digital and paper copies that we’re allowed to make under copyright, and compiling those into an ongoing record of this situation.”

Going forward, Schwartz is looking into ways FPL can provide legal and medical information to the community. The library has hosted free legal sessions with the Genesee County Bar Association in the past, and she hopes to resume that partnership. The library currently distributes flyers from Hurley Medical Center on nutritional remediation for lead exposure, but equally important to giving residents advice will be providing information to outside donors. Schwartz wants the library to be ready to distribute information “to make sure that the money that comes into the community for medical reasons is going to be spent wisely and on the right things.” She added, “We have to be flexible and keep our ears open. We don’t know what’s coming next.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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  1. Jessica Rodriguez says:

    The article refers to Schwartz, but doesn’t introduce her…

    • Lisa Peet Lisa Peet says:

      Thanks for the catch, Jessica. She is FPL director Kay Schwartz, and the article has been updated.