This article from Salon (via American Libraries Direct) discusses the Ferguson Municipal PublicLibrary’s decision to remain open, even though many other public institutions in the community have closed because of the recent unrest. The Library’s goal in doing so is to serve as an “oasis of community”. Not only has the Library welcomed virtually anyone who needs to use it as a safe haven, but it has also reached out to the most vulnerable groups, such as schoolchildren, that have been affected by the closing of schools and other public institutions. (The Library will be closed for Thanksgiving.)
The article raises an important issue, related to the vitalness of libraries in society today, and not just as repositories of information. Should libraries step in to fill roles that have traditionally been the purview of other institutions? Ferguson, obviously, is an extreme case, with virtually all public institutions closing down at once. But, to some extent, libraries across the country, particularly public ones, have already been taking this approach. Hosting activities such as computer training or hobbyist workshops, while once considered beyond a library’s responsibilities, are now commonplace.
Some may question the wisdom of such an approach, especially these days. Libraries are already stretched to the limit in funding and staffing; devoting scarce resources to activities that do not fit the “traditional” library role may seem wasteful, even foolhardy. But acting as a center of community, in ways going beyond just providing reading materials, helps libraries build a reservoir of goodwill and trust with the communities they serve. This is something that can be drawn upon when that goodwill and trust breaks down elsewhere in the community, especially as a starting point for maintaining and, eventually, rebuilding community solidarity. This is already evident in the sharp rise in donations to the Library, via the PayPal link on the Library’s website, since Monday evening.
Any thoughts on this approach? Are librarians crossing a line when they put their own safety, and potentially that of their patrons, at risk by staying open under circumstances such as those in Ferguson? Obviously, the situation remains fluid, and it will be interesting to see how the Library’s role continues to shape–and be shaped by–events as they unfold over the coming days and weeks.