Radical Librarians in Ferguson and Beyond

A militarized police force – clad in body armor, helmets, and camouflage – shot rubber bullets and tear gas at the protestors. Children huddled in their houses, unable to sleep as their parents took turns watching the front doors for trouble, their father sitting next to a baseball bat just in case. The government called up the State police and National Guard, announced curfews, and closed governmental institutions.

This has been the majority of reporting in Ferguson. It is disturbing to be sure. Disturbing because this is not happening overseas, but in the suburbs of Saint Louis. Issues of justice, race, and economic disadvantage have been taken from an unspoken “issue” to the front of America’s consciousness. Yet in the images of protestors doused in gas, and armored police transports another story has emerged: the children of Ferguson are out of school.

Even though the nights are getting quieter the schools remain closed. This is not just a matter of a delayed school year, but for many of the low-income families this is a matter of food. A large percentage of Ferguson’s youth receive food assistance through the schools. If the schools are closed, these children go hungry. Hungry and trapped in their homes with the sounds of shots and riots outside.

The Florissant Valley Branch of the Saint Louis County Library and the local Ferguson Public Library stepped up to help. Yesterday I wrote about the Ferguson Public Library, but less has been said about The Florissant Valley Branch. Both libraries share coverage of the Ferguson-Florissant School District. Both have shown bravery and both show that librarians can be radical positive change agents.

Jennifer Ilardi, a student of mine, came into the Florissant Valley Branch Wednesday and decided to bring a variety of art supplies into the library’s auditorium so that parents could have some activities, get out of the house, socialize, and create. She also decided to order pizza. During a TV interview, She was prompted with “So you saw a need in the community. You saw a void.” She responded with “This is what libraries do. We supplement our educational system regularly with after school programs and summer programs. We provided free lunches all summer long through a collaboration with Operation Food Search because we recognize that a large portion of our community qualifies for free and reduced price lunches.”

The librarians plan on continuing this program all week long. Operation Food Search has agreed to continue the lunch program even though their original agreement had it ending on August 15th. The Magic House, a local children’s museum, has offered to bring in free interactive educational activities for students. Local artists have volunteered their services, as well, offering free magic shows and performances. Some of this collaboration was the library reaching out and part of it was others wanting to get involved. The important thing if that the library establish these relationships continuously which made easy to organize a response.

When I tweeted out some of this yesterday one librarian responded “a library always makes the difference!” While I love the activist spirit behind the tweet (the active voice that libraries MAKE a difference), I have to disagree with the comment for two reasons. One is a continuous rant of mine. Libraries are organizations or buildings, and can do nothing but exert gravity and shield you from the rain. It is librarians, and more broadly library staff that make the difference. It was a decision that Jennifer and her colleagues made to do something beyond being open. It was a choice to be there and help.

The other comment I have on this tweet is that sadly not all libraries do make a difference. Some librarians see an adherence to policy, or not taking sides, as a reason to step back from issues and outright breakdowns in the social order. Still others limit their views by asking, “how can a collection and reading address a problem of civil unrest?” Librarians and their libraries can make a difference, but to do so, they must hold a radical view of their profession and their communities.

Too many see the idea of a radical librarianship as a sort of extreme political partisanship. That is wrong. Radical librarians see librarianship as a chance to make a positive difference in their community. They see their mission to not simply promote reading, or to inform a community. Instead radical librarians, the kind we need, see their mission as the improvement of society. They see their role and the instruments of their institutions as engaging a community and addressing the issues that have exploded in Ferguson. Addressing these issues not with tear gas and rubber bullets, but through pizza, magic shows, and learning.

Some may see summer programs and juice boxes as distractions, or as weak tools in comparison to body armor, but they are wrong. An engaged community, a library dedicated to learning, and making a difference is a powerful deterrent to violence. The deterrent is not a threat of force, but the promise of opportunity and a better tomorrow.

I ask you to support the work and librarians of both Ferguson Public Library and the Florissant Valley Branch. Help through donating time, money, food, books, but also with your voice. Let them know that this is librarianship.

4 Replies to “Radical Librarians in Ferguson and Beyond”

  1. When you remind us that “It is librarians, and more broadly library staff that make the difference,” you offer a well-needed reminder to all trainer-teacher-learners that a) we are integral parts of our communities, and b) we have responsibilities to be part of the change that we want to see. Thanks..

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