I know that Sundays are when we usually talk about books and movies, but today, I think it’s important to take a moment and reflect on the power of libraries in our communities, especially in difficult times. libraries are always terrific resources; always sources of fun and learning. But they are so much more, besides. Time and time again, we see libraries and librarians bringing communities together in the midst of tragedy and adversity, and today is the day to celebrate the good they do in the hardest of times.
Tragically, this week, Cynthia Hurd, manager of St. Andrews Regional Library branch of the Charleston County Public Library, was killed at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Hurd worked at the St. Andrews Library for 31 years, and, according to an article from Library Journal, was also the longest serving part-time librarian at the College of Charleston’s Addlestone Library. Reflections on her and her work have been pouring in, noting how she encouraged children to read, to work on homework assignments, and college applications and, how later, those patrons returned to the library with children of their own. In a quote from the Charleston Post and Courier, Kim Odom, manager of the nearby John Dart branch library, (and a patron of Hurd’s library as a child) said:
“She really opened up to me what library service meant,” Odom said. “(It’s) not just a building where you come for storytime but a place where you really can get help … whether it is helping someone with a resume or helping them use a computer a little bit better.”
In Dr. Zhivago, Boris Pasternak wrote, “You in others–this is your soul. This is what you are…your life in others.” In reading about Hurd’s dedication to her job, and to her patrons, about the lives she touched and changed for the better, it is clear the memory she left behind is one that will long be remembered, even as we learn that the St. Andrews library is to be renamed in Hurd’s honor.
Another reminder of the power of libraries came several weeks ago, when the Ferguson Public Library was named the Library of the Year by Library Journal. Even during the most turbulent days in that town, the Ferguson Library remained the one agency in town to keep its doors open and support all its citizens. Teachers held classes there when schools were closed, and the library hosted educational programming for some 200 children in a nearby church during the day; the U.S. Small Business Administration set up a temporary disaster loan outreach center there for business owners; but most importantly, the library remained a space where people could talk, could share, and could begin to rebuild. With the donations that came pouring into the library during this time, Library Director Scott Bonner, established a collection of books on community development and problem solving. He also placed a call to Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library during the unrest there in April, supporting the library’s decision to remain open even when other schools and other business were closed to the public.
In recognition of his work, Bonner was awarded the second annual Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity, an award established by the American Library Association, and Lemony Snicket author Daniel Handler. Along with a cash prize, the recipient of this award is also given “an odd, symbolic object”. As Handler has yet to accept his award, we’re not sure what he’ll be getting, but if last year’s award is any indication, it will be deeply meaningful, as well as unique.
The first recipient of the Lemony Snicket Award was Laurence Copel, the founder of the Lower 9th Ward Street Library in New Orleans, Louisiana. Copel first saw the Lower 9th Ward, one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina, in 2009. After noting how little progress was being made on rebuilding the area, and the lack of support for the people living there, she left her job at the New York Public Library and moved to New Orleans with a suitcase full of children’s books in June, 2010. She accepted donations and peddled her bike around local neighborhoods, handing out books and reading to children all summer long. Through her outreach work and fundraising (including a Book Parade that features kids dressed as their favorite literary characters), Copel has recently opened a brick-and-mortar library, and debuted a bookmobile that doesn’t require peddles. In recognition of her work, Copel’s “odd” object from Mr. Snicket was a platter, illustrated by Mo Willems, beloved author of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and so very much more, showing her on her book bike.
I don’t know if there are words to adequately express the heartbreak that we have faced in the news recently, or how we are to move on appropriately. What I can do is reiterate the words of the very wise Mr. Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'”
These librarians are the helpers. Their libraries have provided a haven for good, even in the scariest of time. And while we know very well how lucky we are everyday, we, too, want to be the helpers. Today, we can do that by saluting these brave, intrepid, and honorable librarians and the work that they do.
To learn more about the Library of the Year Award, click here.
To learn more about the Lemony Snicket Award, click here.