Op-Ed: The Library is the Community

A sign from Library Director, Scott Bonner
A sign from Library Director, Scott Bonner

Keeping with the running theme of community and beyond for this newsletter installment let us focus on the ongoing civil unrest and turmoil in the community of Ferguson, Missouri. Since the fatal shooting in August, the protests and rioting have forced the Ferguson Public Library to close just once (although the library closed early on the day of the grand jury decision not to indict), while community businesses and restaurants suffer from the ongoing state of disruption. In a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” live Q&A, Ferguson Library Director Scott Bonner writes, “The library has to be open to every human being in Ferguson,” in lieu of standing ready and armed with a fire extinguisher to combat rogue groups of protesters attempting to kick in the front doors on a recent Monday night.

Bonner’s dedication to the community exemplifies the role of the library in every community across the country. When schools did not open on time this August, Bonner invited retired schoolteachers and volunteers to hold classes for students at the library until the school could open. When these classes gained such popularity that the library could not hold all the students, the community offered space at a nearby Baptist church so the kids could continue to learn. Different community groups approached the library to offer classes and special programs for the students.

Although Ferguson Public Library had no existing policies in place to handle any outbreaks of civil unrest, Bonner made the most of the situation by doing the “type of work that libraries were made to do, providing continuing education, cultural enrichment, and a meeting space for the community.”

After becoming a ad-hoc school for Ferguson students, Bonner also supported local businesses by hosting listening sessions, hosting agencies providing emergency loan services, providing document recovery and preservation of destroyed vital documents for the Secretary of State, helping businesses file for insurance, and hosting meetings for groups tackling the current big issues in Ferguson, like ONUS, the NAACP and Teach for America.

For this small community of 21,000, the library has become an essential lifeline to coping with and moving forward from the months of protests and riots that ravage the same half-mile stretch of town. The community had an immediate need and the library fulfilled this need: the need for a quiet place to escape the tumult of demonstrations, a place to feel welcome without judgment.

The national attention garnered by this community has brought its public library into the limelight. While participating in the Reddit AMA John Greene, author of one of the library’s most popular books, The Fault in our Stars wrote that he would be sending signed copies of the book to the library. Book and monetary donations have skyrocketed, with contributions nearing $300,000 to a library with an annual budget of a mere $400,000.

With the overwhelming support, Bonner is excited to make the most of the library’s efforts to help and improver Ferguson, particularly through greater community-focused programming.

Bonner’s efforts as Library Director echo those of our local Directors of the Symposium guest panel. As demonstrated in the collaborative session between three Directors serving different communities, service to the community is driven by the passion and commitment to lifelong learning as a means for community enhancement and progress. In times of turmoil and also times of rest, the library is a life resource. The structural library building provides a safe haven for library services to facilitate historical, cultural, societal and technological enrichment through engaged learning and knowledge sharing for the betterment of the community.

It should be noted that libraries are as dedicated to the community as the Ferguson Public Library on a daily basis. Bonner makes sure to note the fact that what he has done in the face of circumstance is something any library would do for its community. Libraries exist for the people they serve. Librarians make themselves aware of community needs and work to fill these needs to constantly improve society for the future.

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