Libraries and library workers - stewards of the greater good

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by Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne

Henry came to the San Francisco Public Library after losing his son, then his job and then his home. Leah, a social worker in the library, introduced him to the city’s Homeless Outreach Team, which found him subsidized housing and counseling to deal with his depression. After a 12-week vocational training program, Henry joined the library staff as a Health and Safety Associate that helps others experiencing homelessness get needed resources.

Henry and thousands of others need places of hope, of refuge and of connection. In fact, we all do—if not with the same urgency. Thankfully, America’s 17,000 public libraries serve everyone everywhere by providing guidance and access to the resources we all need to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

The new film “The Public” tells the stories of several people struggling with homelessness and, in some cases, mental illness. They find true refuge at their local library from the kind of fatal cold many northern cities and towns have experienced this winter. The movie is fiction, but it is inspired by real people and places too often invisible or forgotten.

The film also showcases the changing role of librarians and library workers who are rising to meet growing community needs. The fictional librarians in “The Public” believe strongly in their work and care deeply about their patrons—and they reflect the real-life experiences of public librarians who address community needs with a range of programs, services and collections, frequently in close collaboration with local partners.

The Street Card-Resources for Help program created by the Baltimore County Public Library in cooperation with the Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless, for instance, provides homeless patrons with information on employment, food and emergency assistance, health, financial support, legal issues and shelter.

In hundreds of libraries around the country, staff are pairing popular summer reading and learning programs with healthy meals for children and teens because more than 16 million youth under the age of 18 live in households where they are unable to consistently access enough nutritious food to live healthy lives. Youth who attend summer reading programs also experience greater gains in their academic performance than their nonparticipating peers.

And the Jackson County Public Library in McKee, Kentucky, teamed with the Peoples Rural Telephone Cooperative and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, to better address veteran’s health care needs through the library’s Virtual Living Room Telehealth Center. The project connects veterans in the rural county with VA health professionals via a gigabit broadband connection.

It’s that role of librarians as stewards of a greater good that I hope audiences take away from “The Public.” Libraries are great equalizers. Anyone can come in and use the resources available – to learn, to read a book, to write a resume, to code a computer program, to create a business plan, to get homework help, to access government information, and much more. By giving people access to resources, libraries offer opportunities for people to achieve their goals and pursue success.

Despite this, they also can be targets for short-sighted funding cuts. President Trump’s 2020 budget proposal, for instance, would eliminate funding distributed to each state through the Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA), money that helps advance education, employment, empowerment, engagement and entrepreneurship in communities across the country. Congress can and should fully fund the program, and voters should support local library funding at the ballot box, as well.

As the nation celebrates National Library Week from April 7-13, and National Library Workers Day on April 9, the contributions of libraries and librarians deserve recognition and respect. Today’s libraries are essential community hubs that in many places in our country provide the only access to information for underrepresented, marginalized and vulnerable populations. Their services change lives, like Henry’s, and build stronger communities everywhere.

Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne is Library Director at Palo Alto City Library and President of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association.