This year, as we celebrate National Library Week, April 12 – 18, it is important to realize that libraries not only engage, but also transform their communities, especially during times of emergency, when libraries are often the glue that holds communities together.
A dramatic illustration of this was displayed in Ferguson, Missouri during August and November 2014, following the announcement of a Grand Jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.
When local schools were closed, the library became an “ad hoc school on the fly” where students were taught by “working and retired teachers” and other volunteers. The library remained open and provided space for teachers to hold classes. Library staff went even further by creating special programming and educational experiences for the students. It also supported its community by hosting the U.S. Small Business Administration so it could provide emergency loans, the office of the U.S. Secretary of State to provide document recovery and preservation services and the Missouri Department of Insurance to help local businesses file for insurance and claims.
In addition, the library staff supported the children of Ferguson by circulating “healing kits,” which included books, stuffed animals and activities to help them cope with the unrest in their community.
Contrary to the narrow, old-fashioned view that pigeonholes them as places to check out books, libraries often fill the gap when other community agencies break down.
After Hurricane Sandy, libraries in Connecticut and New Jersey welcomed residents without power and provided emergency services ranging from daytime shelter to providing a space for filing insurance claims. The library provided a place where people could share experiences with others affected by the hurricane.
This example is among thousands of examples of how libraries are supporting their communities. But it doesn’t necessarily take a crisis to underscore the significance of libraries to their communities. Many times, it is the little things that illuminate the larger picture.
On a daily basis, libraries draw in people of all ages, from birth to earth. The range of programming at public libraries runs the gamut, including veterans sharing their stories with children, gardeners receiving tips and even seeds, teens enjoying a Battle of the Bands contest and citizenship and ESL classes for new Americans.
Stunning innovation also can be seen within the nation’s school libraries, which are undergoing a transformation in the way they deliver services. From providing education communities with a full range of multimedia learning resources to equipping students with digital literacy and critical thinking skills, school libraries and their librarians are making invaluable contributions to curriculum.
At Pennsylvania Avenue School in Atlantic City, N.J., students have access to an award winning program that offers state-of-the-art technological resources. Students are permitted to leave recess and visit the library to read, explore gaming, complete assignments, engage through social media, create videos and explore various presentation tools to highlight their learning. Students are eager to get online, chat and blog about projects, discuss the “maker space” activities and promote reading material through recommendations.
During National Library Week, let’s celebrate the unlimited possibilities offered by our nation’s libraries. But let’s do more than that — let’s explore them, financially support them and take advantage of the countless free resources they offer.
Written by Courtney Young, President American Library Association, (2014-2015).