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Librarians from Ferguson, Baltimore travel to Rutgers

 – Photo by Marielle Sumergido

Everyone remembers the infamous burning CVS Pharmacy from the Baltimore riots that made global headlines. Far fewer paid attention to a community library across the street.

The library's newly renovated two-story glass windows, portraying an African-American child reading a book, remained un-boarded, yet unscathed, from the surrounding chaos throughout the ordeal. 

Five months earlier, a library in Ferguson similarly decided not to board windows on the night of the grand jury verdict. 

Instead, the directors of these libraries, Carla Hayden and Scott Bronner, respectively, chose to turn their libraries into a place for community members to eat, sleep, recharge and find refuge. 

In Rutgers' own Alexander Library, Bronner and Hayden visited to lead a discussion on the greater social role that libraries play in communities in an event titled "Troubled Times and Tough Choices – Tales from Ferguson and Baltimore."  

"I very deliberately did not board up. The whole town boarded up in preparation of the grand jury announcement. (But the library) has to welcome the public ... you have to welcome them with human faces," said Bronner, who had been director of the Ferguson Municipal Library for only five weeks when Michael Brown was shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson. 

On the night of the first Baltimore riots, Hayden said around 5 p.m. a person could feel a change in the air.

"It was uncanny," said Hayden, CEO of the Enoch Free Pratt Library of Baltimore, which has had a large presence in the city for decades.  

The Ferguson Municipal Library opened its doors to everyone during last year's events, but the library has been most recognized for its "School for Peace," which served more than 200 students a day.

When the Ferguson school system shut down for a week, Bronner and his staff responded by creating a functioning school within the library, later dubbed the School of Peace.  

Children would sign in, write their names and grade levels and then be assigned to a volunteer teacher. The volunteer teachers included retired professionals, teachers from Teach for America and teachers who would have otherwise been at work if schools were open. 

In addition to giving schooling for children, both the Enoch Free Pratt Library of Baltimore and Ferguson Municipal Library provided food, water, shelter and electricity to members of the community. Bronner even provided groups, such as the NAACP, meeting space in which to work.

"The highlight was when the phone rang and someone said, 'People from Ferguson (library) are calling us.' It was this solidarity and it just gave us such a lift," Hayden said. "We knew we were a library community and we were setting a pattern."

Media outlets, such as Newsweek and NPR, shared the libraries' positive stories amidst an outpouring of negative news. 

And the media attention paid off.

Following the grand jury verdict and protests, the Ferguson Municipal Library received more than $400,000 in donations, which Bronner compared to the library's typical $4,000 budget. Hayden's Enoch Pratt Free Library of Baltimore similarly received large sums of donations in the aftermath of protests and rioting. 

Despite the positive response to what these libraries were doing, Hayden recalled the emotional moments of seeing mothers coming into the library with strollers and being hit with the impact of the riots on regular community members.

"They can't go get their prescriptions, they can't go to school, they can't go to the grocery store. Their lives are being disrupted," she said. "You see that and you feel it."

Bronner was hit with an emotional moment too when a young girl told him there was tear gas in her backyard, and her mother was desperately trying to close their windows. 

Libraries are not just here for the community during "bad times," both Bronner and Hayden agreed. Every single day, people use library computers to go on job hunts, contact relatives and seek shelter. 

"We had a young man come in and say, 'I'm so glad you're here because I have to apply for jobs.' He came in days later and had three job offers," Hayden said. 

A year later, these two libraries are making an effort to bridge the divide between police officers, city officials and community members. 

The Enoch Free Pratt Library of Baltimore has a program where a police officer visits the library to read to children for "story time." And in Ferguson, the library has a new program entitled "How to Run For Office," in which the mayor and city council members speak to children about different aspects of public service. 

Ross Todd, chair of the Library and Information Sciences Department at Rutgers, reiterated that libraries are not only a source of information. They have a role in sustaining life.

"What really stood out for me was libraries as an integral part of a community and not merely about information. Your stories are about libraries that have a role in sustaining lives, in providing a sense of normalcy and a sense of hope," he said. "It is deeply moving for me."

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