Libraries Respond to Community Needs in Times of Crisis

Baltimore, Ferguson just two recent examples of libraries offering refuge

May 15, 2015

Baltimore resident Kevin Eaton walks past the Enoch Pratt Free Library at Pennsylvania Avenue on April 29 as police were stationed against many city buildings and on the streets.
Baltimore resident Kevin Eaton walks past the Enoch Pratt Free Library at Pennsylvania Avenue on April 29 as police were stationed against many city buildings and on the streets. Photo: Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun/TNS via Getty Images

A patron stopped librarian Melanie Townsend Diggs on Wednesday afternoon with good news: He had used a library computer to apply for some jobs Tuesday morning, and before he even got home that day, he had gotten a call for an interview.

A pretty typical moment for most librarians, Diggs says, except that Tuesday morning, April 28, was no typical day. Just 12 hours before, rioting had erupted across the street from the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, when protests against the high-profile death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray turned violent. As a CVS drugstore burned and the turmoil played out, Diggs kept her patrons safe, quietly locking the doors and letting them out later when the violence subsided.

That night, she had a conference call with the library’s CEO, Carla Hayden, and Diggs told Hayden, a former ALA president, she wanted her branch to stay open, despite what happened.

“I just knew in my heart that we needed to be open, knowing what the library means to the community. I just felt like we needed to be here,” says Diggs. “Had we not been open, that man would not have been able to put those job applications online and receive such a welcoming phone call. He’s one step closer.”

The decision to stay open despite the threat of continued violence has attracted praise, donations, and support, both nationally and internationally, but Diggs insists it wasn’t an act of heroism.

“This is our life every day. We are public servants every day. At the end of the day, what happened on Monday [during the height of the unrest] was service oriented,” says Diggs. “We were giving the best service to our customers and our community that we can give. We do that every day.”

Ferguson Public Library

Ferguson (Mo.) Public Library director Scott Bonner understands why Diggs wanted to stay open. As Ferguson raged with protests over the August 9, 2014, shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer, Bonner had a policy: If it’s safe to open, he would open.

“I didn’t treat it lightly,” he says. “I was up to the wee hours every night, watching the Twitter feeds, watching the news. It just turned out that every day it was safe. If you believe in serving people, and it’s safe to be open, why wouldn’t you be open?”

Not only did the Ferguson library remain open, but while school was closed for a week, Bonner invited kids to come to the library, hosting more than 200 children and dozens of teachers, eventually overflowing to a church up the street. The library has helped local businesses get aid from the state, hosted listening sessions for the community, and has seen membership in its Readings on Race book club increase.

We are public servants every day. [During the height of the unrest] we were giving the best service to our customers and our community that we can give. We do that every day.—Melanie Townsend Diggs, branch manager, Enoch Pratt Free Library

Bonner’s decision to stay open through the Ferguson crisis also garnered accolades and donations, but it had one other positive effect: solidifying the library as the community’s center.

“The library is busier every day than anyone [can] remember it being,” Bonner says. “Prime time after school, the library is standing-room only. I think on a larger scale, people know that we’re here and appreciate what we’re doing more.”

Receiving such attention has been complex for Bonner, who admits he feels guilty for receiving praise for doing what he feels is his job.

“In the end, they’re giving me all the awards for showing up, and that’s what I’m supposed to do—show up,” he says. “It’s not about me; it’s about libraries. If you think I did a good job, that’s because that you think libraries do a good job. If you are amazed that we did that, it probably tells me that you haven’t gone to a library lately.”

A safe haven

And libraries do have a long history of serving communities in times of crisis, says Wayne Wiegand, Florida State University LIS professor and author of the forthcoming Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library (Oxford University Press, 2015).

“I think you can fairly well say, historically, that [Bonner and Diggs] are doing things that are in the spirit of librarians and public libraries,” says Wiegand. “Generally as a profession, librarians bring that sense of humanity into their job. That’s what librarians have been doing since the Boston Public Library opened in 1854.”

Wiegand says at every crisis through American history, you see librarians stepping up to fill their community’s need.

“You could go through all of the traumatic events since libraries started—the Civil War, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and so on, right up through 9/11—and most of them will show you the qualities and the responses that you see in Baltimore and Ferguson,” he says. “It’s a history of which we should be very proud.”

It’s just part of the tradition of public libraries in America, being here in good [times] and bad.—Carla Hayden, CEO, Enoch Pratt Free Library

He cites an example from the Great Depression in which a librarian watched an 8-year-old girl bring her 2-year-old sister into the building to wash her in the sink. The librarian knew they weren’t supposed to allow people to do that, Wiegand says, but she could never bring herself to go into the bathroom and tell them to stop when she knew this was their only place to wash.

Libraries have a history of advancing civil rights as well. Wiegand points to Selma, Alabama’s public library, which integrated 18 months before the city’s famous marches on the Edmund Pettus Bridge and stayed open throughout the march and violence that followed.

On 9/11, New York City libraries stayed open throughout the day and became a place where people could be together as the tragedy unfolded.

“Many of them pulled television sets into the reading rooms so people could watch the events,” he says. “In the accounts I’ve read, the libraries almost provided a sort of free therapy and place for community discussion.”

Natural disasters

Libraries have been community anchors in the wake of natural disasters as well. Wiegand notes librarians who put books on a boat and floated them to customers stranded during flooding in the Tennessee Valley in the 1930s.

Bonner lauds librarians just a few hours away, in Joplin, Missouri, who stayed open when a tornado flattened nearly three-quarters of the town in 2011, despite eight staff members’ homes being completely destroyed.

This rich history was on Hayden’s mind as she made the decision that every branch throughout Baltimore would remain open, despite protests and threats of more violence.

“It’s just part of the tradition of public libraries in America, being here in good [times] and bad,” Hayden says. “When the spotlight turned on the community in need, the library was there. I’m proud that we were able to carry that on.”