What do hurricanes, hungry kids, dancing, civil unrest, learning and entertainment have in common? These things, and so much more, are examples of ways that libraries support those who live in their communities.
Welcome to Two Librarians and A Microphone, a library podcast by Ingram Library Services. Join Ingram's Collection Development Team as they explore trending topics, discuss industry news, and share their expertise on how to build the perfect collection for your community.
Hello. Thank you for joining me in the fourth installment of a series of podcasts discussing issues important to public librarians as we continue to try to serve our communities in a world with rapidly shifting needs and circumstances. I’m Beth Reinker, Manager of Collection Development for Adult Materials here at Ingram. I’m joined today by Becky Walton, who is a Collection Development Librarian for Ingram Library Services.
Today’s subject is how libraries are helping their communities in these turbulent times. As I look at this year, we’ve experienced incredible political strife. We’ve just seen Hurricanes Harvey and Irma hit the U.S. Libraries are in the midst of yet another difficult battle for funding. But I think it’s important to say that we also see a lot of good, and libraries, specifically, are doing so much good for their communities.
I feel like we have to begin this discussion with a nod to Charles Dickens’ classic opening of A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” That opening paragraph has never been more relatable to me.
There are some great examples of libraries serving their communities in times of crisis. Libraries in Ferguson and Baltimore remained open when their communities needed them most. After the civil unrest near Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Pennsylvania Avenue Branch library, Branch Manager Melanie Townsend Diggs said, “I’ve been a librarian for more than 20 years, and as difficult and scary as this week has been, I love the fact that it has shown people that we’re here. Sometimes people don’t realize all we do as librarians. We’re the light in the community, the pathway to resources, we provide access to a world of possibilities. Situations like this shed light on a profession that often gets overlooked.” Diggs later won the 2016 Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity.
We’ve also seen libraries literally shelter their communities from natural disasters. The library is a place of sanctuary within the community. South Orange’s library served as an evacuation center during Superstorm Sandy, but libraries can also provide a physical space to meet or even just provide power and connectivity that their patrons lose in the disruption. After Superstorm Sandy, some libraries opened early and closed late, and many offered a place to charge devices or take respite from the pressure that their patrons faced in the wake of the storm. Even when circumstances aren’t dire, many libraries are cooling or warming centers for the public when it’s too hot or cold to be outside.
There’s even a public Facebook group called Libraries Step Up (in times of crisis), which is a great resource for librarians who might be facing difficult situations or anyone who wants to support libraries who are working through crises. They have some great information about ways that we can all pitch in to help libraries in Florida and Texas right now.
I’m so glad you pointed that out. After you mentioned the group, I went in and saw so much great information about disaster preparedness and ways to help libraries that have a need right now. I think a lot of people want to help, but they just don’t know the concrete things that they can do to offer support.
Even if there isn’t a critical situation, libraries can also help their communities by providing information and hope. In an earlier podcast Shannan and I talked about escapist reading. In a recent Washington Post article, Kathy Doyle Thomas, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer for Half Price Books, said that “in addition to novels being an escape, she has seen an increase in customers shopping for books that will inspire them — about people doing good work, or how to get involved in the community.”
Our team recently had the opportunity to work with California Center for the Book on their Book-to-Action program, which is a unique and positive programming idea that speaks directly to inspiring the community. The other cool thing about the program is that it’s a concept that could easily be a springboard for other libraries to try to build community programs.
Book to Action is like many community reads programs. Libraries win a grant to receive copies of the book to give to their community. They hold events like author events and book discussions around the title. The unique thing about this program is that the book selection and programming are built around a community service project. This makes the event a great opportunity to partner with community organizations and to help highlight volunteer opportunities in the community.
To give you an idea of the kinds of programs libraries have held as part of Book to Action, Contra Costa County Library’s Concord branch read Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter and offered volunteer opportunities to plant a garden at the library and start a seed library. A group at Nevada County Library read The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and held a “knit in” event to make hats and scarves for cancer patients.
After the 2017 events, they surveyed participants in the community, and 88% of respondents had participated in the community service project, 92% thought they had learned something new and valuable about a service need in their community, and 91% found the program to be a meaningful experience.
You can learn more about the program on Instagram #booktoaction.
That’s such a fun, positive program! I really enjoyed working with them.
With immigration in the news so much lately, I think that’s a population that’s on many people’s minds. In a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 59% of respondents said that libraries should “definitely” offer programs for immigrants. There are many libraries working hard to support immigrant and refugee populations in their communities. In addition to providing world language materials, libraries can be a resource for citizenship materials and a meeting place for ESOL and citizenship classes.
New York City has taken a unique approach to helping its large immigrant population. New York Public Library hosts sessions for We Are New York, which is a 10-episode Emmy Award-winning TV show created to help people practice English. With plotlines that relate to participants’ everyday lives, the show helps them improve their English. Sessions also include English conversation groups where ESOL learners can meet to practice speaking with others who are also learning.
Support for immigrant populations can also include educating the community about different cultures within the community. We often see cultural clashes in the news, but libraries can provide opportunities to learn about the cultures from which immigrant populations have come. A great example of this is Coming Together in Skokie & Niles Township, a partnership between libraries, schools, community groups, and business partners that helps provide cultural awareness to their community. They select a different culture to celebrate each year, and participants in programs learn more about that culture through reading and programming. The program helps open conversation and education about different parts of the community. Their website explains that “The more we know about other cultures, countries and people, the greater our compassion and the stronger our community.” In the past, the program has highlighted many cultures including Chinese, Latino, Korean, and Assyrian. You can learn more about this program at comingtogether.in.
Getting new Americans up to speed and ready for a successful life here is one of the feel-good things that libraries do, but it’s not all warm fuzzies. Libraries are there when times are really tough, too. There was a CNN article published on June 24, 2017 about how libraries in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco are training their staff members to take the role of first responder in drug overdose situations by administering Narcan shots to save lives. That’s a whole lot of responsibility for librarians!
A 2014 NY State Department of Corrections report stated that 29% of female and 42% of male ex-offenders return to prison within three years. In response to that crisis, the Queens Library partnered with the Queens Correctional Facility on a pilot program called “See You On The Outside”, a re-entry and reintegration program for ex-offenders that provides job readiness skills and case management prior to, and after release from prison.
In a 2017 ALA article, Samantha Yanity wrote about librarians as superheroes. When she was a youngster, she viewed them as the keepers of the stories, but as she got older she began to see librarians as truth-seekers. She said, “They, like knights, worked to protect the dignity of the human narrative and history. They fought valiantly to protect critical thinking skills, intellectual freedom, and factual and accurate history.” She wraps up the article with this, “Countless times I witnessed librarians cloak themselves in superhero capes and enter unfamiliar scenarios—offering support for an overwhelmed client with Autism, retrieving citizenship materials in Urdu, and even lending a hand to a client having a grand mal seizure. No matter the situation, the librarians in my life have granted my former clients and myself accessibility, inclusiveness, and equality no matter what messages we received outside. In the library, superheroes work, and they often go unacknowledged, but their work is vital for our society. Without their powers, we would be at a great loss for accessibility, inclusiveness, and diversity. Without them, where would the outsiders go to find a magical world where they belong?”
We couldn’t have said it better than Samantha did in this piece. We, too, believe librarians are superheroes, and we’re grateful that we have the privilege of supporting those librarian superheroes out there on the front lines.
And with that, I’d like to thank everyone for listening, please connect with us via Facebook and Twitter.
Has your library been able to support your community through a difficult time? Have you found an innovative way to support your community or get people involved in community service? Ingram is collecting your stories to share how you’re working to support and empower your patrons every day.
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