LOOKING BACK ON A LIFE THAT HAD FAR more twists and turns than most of us could endure, Lemony Snicket considered one aspect of his journey that provided him solace: “A good library will never be too neat, or too dusty, because somebody will always be in it, taking books off the shelves and staying up reading them.” To that list could be added the extra dimensions of viewing, listening, dialogue, and social media.
It’s likely we know this already, yet in some of the most significant happenings of modern life – many of them tragic in nature – libraries having taken on the roles of consolers, citizen guardians, event educators, and, in some senses, emergency agencies. Some examples.
Consider how Ferguson, Missouri’s, libraries stepped into the breach of social conflict, legal confusion, and general unrest following the Grand Jury’s decision to decline to indict the police officer who shot Michael Brown a year ago. By any measurement the community was facing a defining moment. With local schools closed, along with others buildings, the city’s library system went to work in ways nothing less than transformational. They remained open and welcoming for students to be taught by working and retired teachers, in what was termed as the city’s “ad hoc school on the fly.” Reaching even further, the libraries hosted the U. S. Small Business Administration in order to provide emergency loans, and the U. S. Secretary of State Department to provide document recovery and preservation services. Extending their reach out into the community, library staff circulated “healing kits,” filled with books, stuffed animals, and activities to help Ferguson’s children cope with the tensions of what they were seeing and feeling. When the worst of it was over, citizens realized that they could never quite look at their libraries the same ever again.
Libraries in Connecticut and New Jersey welcomed residents under assault from Hurricane Sandy, and who found themselves without power, by providing spaces for emergency services. They also hosted citizen dialogue sessions that encouraging locals to “talk through” with one another their stories, frustrations, and sense of loss. Those conversations inevitably became circles of hope – something that would never have transpired unless the libraries moved beyond their traditional mandates.
Public libraries are now more popular than at any other time in their existence, which is saying something, considering that they were some of the first physical structures to appear in our communities. In a world changing every day through dramatic technological innovations, libraries have kept themselves relevant by keeping pace with such developments.
And they are discovering new ways to enhance those communities in which they function. In London, Ontario, the city’s library system has taken on the vital partnership role of helping its community to think of how the Thames River might take on a more pivotal role in the quality of life of citizens. In an effort spearheaded by the London Community Foundation, local libraries will serve as information collection and disbursement centers, as individuals, organizations, businesses, and entire neighbourhoods are consulted as to how the historic waterway system might assist us in coming to terms with our future in ways that will preserve river’s integral and sustainable relationship with a people and its land. More will be announced by the London Community Foundation as to public sessions and the library’s vital role in it all.
“Whatever the cost of our libraries,” noted Walter Cronkite, “the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” And now we can add the observation that our libraries are now healing and transforming communities, helping them to discover a new future. Quite a bargain.