Diary of a New Foundation Employee – The Promise of the Library

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Early last week, I had written a lovely post about the way libraries have been creating community that exists in both physical and non-physical space. Then “my” Twin Cities, and the nation, convulsed with grief, anger, and frustration over the murder of George Floyd and the continued devaluing of black life in the United States. A colleague reported ash falling in her garden from Wednesday night’s fires, and it felt like metaphor.

I have said it before, but I continue to consider myself lucky to work with a group of humans who see each other as humans. We allow for emotional responses and the necessary pauses that result. Out of the conversation generated by this pause, and discussions of privilege, elitism, and the belief of some that the library is only a place of literary importance, came the phrase “the promise of the library.” I’m paraphrasing my colleague, but I believe he meant that the library positions itself as a place that believes in every member of its community.

The library is the center of a network. It is an entity that prioritizes connection and access – to information, ideas, stories, and other people. Libraries can take a leadership role, so long as they do not isolate themselves from those they serve. It is possible to turn ideals into the grounded, generative connections that create visible humanity. It’s tough right now, with Saint Paul’s libraries still mostly closed, and lively gatherings to discuss, learn, and make change are not exactly on the table, but maybe some of what I had originally written about can still stand.

I have experienced the sensation of real connection in video conversations over the last few months. I have been moved by stories of libraries offering food to students who would normally get breakfast and lunch at school. I have been uplifted that so many libraries are running successful virtual programs, calling to check on folks for whom the library is their primary locus of connection, and getting wireless hotspots out so kids can stay connected to their classrooms. I am proud of local library leaders who know their neighborhoods so well, that they can deploy language-specific help to connect folks with city organizations. And, of course, I take great comfort in librarians reading children’s stories on virtual storytime feeds. These actions do build up that invisible connection I once waxed poetic about, and, perhaps, more importantly break down barriers.

We’ve got a long way to go, but I really do believe that the solutions to the deep, structural challenges we face come out of the kinds of connection and care modeled by our libraries during the pandemic. 

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