Reporter's Notebook

Washington, District of Columbia
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When Libraries Are ‘Second Responders’

The Columbus Metropolitan Library
Above the doorway of the Columbus Metropolitan Library are the words Open to All. Deborah Fallows

Everyone knows about first responders. I’ve come to think of libraries as playing a crucial role as “second responders.”

In Ferguson, Missouri, the public library stayed open when the schools were closed after the riots, to offer the kids a safe place and even classes taught by volunteers. After the hurricanes in Houston, some library websites were immediately up and running, announcing that they were open for business. After Hurricane Sandy, some libraries in New Jersey became places of refuge. And in the Queens Library’s Far Rockaway branch, which didn’t have heat or light, the librarians set up shop in the parking lot to continue children’s story hours “to give them a sense of normalcy,” says Christian Zabriskie, who was a Queens librarian then. “Story time at the end of the world” he called it. In Orlando, after the nightclub shootings, the library hosted an art gallery for those who made art as a way to express and share their reactions. After the Thomas Fire, the Santa Barbara Public Library invited the public to share their stories and lessons, to help heal and prepare for the future.

Libraries step in to fill gaps and offer help when normal channels are inaccessible. Pima County, Arizona, pays for a team of nurses to come to the library to help with medical questions for those who can’t or won’t go to a hospital, clinic, or doctor. In Charleston, West Virginia, librarians told me that they have launched searches for people to research health issues or concerns. In some libraries, librarians have Narcan training. In Bend, Oregon, a social worker has helped prepare the librarians to work with people who came in with sensitive, personal questions, such as how to meet their rent and mortgage payments.

Others report that they have helped people figure out how to have a dignified funeral when they have no money for one. In Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, among the hardest-hit areas of the entire country during the 2008–2009 financial collapse, the leaders of the public-library system found ways to stretch and reprogram their budget to ensure that their system would stay open seven days a week during the crisis, because they knew their citizens would need its resources to cope with job loss, house foreclosures, and more.

Carved in the granite above the doorway of the imposing flagship Carnegie Library in Columbus, Ohio, are the words Open to All.  I have seen homeless people line up waiting for the doors to open so they can spend the day inside comfortably and safely.

In my hometown of Washington, D.C., I trudged to our local library during an extreme cold-weather episode a year or two ago and read a handwritten sign saying that the library was closed because of the cold, and pointing to the emergency shelters that were open instead. Librarians have told me that they’ve heard from homeless people about one of the important reasons they go to libraries: These are the only places where they are treated with respect. Librarians also told me about the various rules and regulations they impose about noise, sleeping, eating, “bathing” in restrooms, disruptive behavior, and storage of belongings. They say that occasionally people are placed on “sabbatical” from the libraries for infringements and are sometimes referred to public places where they can take showers. None have reported serious incidents to me, which suggests that respect is mutual.

The most serious of these examples are testament to the trust that citizens place in their libraries and librarians. The Pew Research Center reports that 78 percent of people say libraries help them to find information they can trust. Librarians are nothing if not discreet. I have asked librarians about their users looking at pornography on the public computers. They demur, kind of, and say that they don’t look at what people are doing on the computers, and others say that they only step in when someone complains.

Zabriskie, who now works in Yonkers, points to the complexity of being a librarian these days. “Amidst glory days of librarianship,” he says, “there can be trauma. If every day’s work were just reading to toddlers, great. But sometimes those kids are homeless.”

“Sometimes librarians are Batman,” Zabriskie says. “Sometimes they are ghosts in the machine. We have to resist hardening the space.”

From left: Brandon Dennison, Stacey Epperson, Regi Haslett-Marroquín, and Denisa Livingston, all rural innovators who discussed their programs on Monday
From left: Brandon Dennison, Stacey Epperson, Regi Haslett-Marroquín, and Denisa Livingston, all rural innovators who discussed their programs on Monday Courtesy of Ashoka

This was a fascinating session—I say, as the person who got to ask the questions, rather than having to give the answers. The hour-long YouTube video is here.

The topic was “Small Towns, Big Ideas: Innovations From Rural America.” It was a discussion in Washington, D.C., on the evening of May 13, sponsored by the renowned social-entrepreneur organization Ashoka, with four of its Ashoka fellows working in rural or small-town locations. They were:

Brandon Dennison, of Coalfield Development in West Virginia; Stacey Epperson, of Next Step in Kentucky; Regi Haslett-Marroquín, of the Main Street regenerative agriculture project in Minnesota; and Denisa Livingston, of the Diné Community Advocacy Alliance of the Navajo Nation.

  • Brandon Dennison has a program to bring economic diversity to coalfield areas, which have historically been boom-and-bust economic monocultures.
  • Stacey Epperson has a program to make high-quality, affordable manufactured homes a step toward homeownership, for people who have not owned homes.
  • Regi Haslett-Marroquín has a chicken-based program to make agriculture globally sustainable.
  • Denisa Livingston has a program to combat obesity and diabetes among her people, with the country’s most aggressive anti-junk-food efforts.

I promise that if you listen to this session, you’ll learn about innovations you hadn’t been aware of before.

It may also give you a sense of the breadth of the renewal efforts under way in American settlements large and small. There’s also an extended discussion of why, exactly, the majority of Americans who live in bigger cities should care about rural folk—and about the difference between saying that many rural areas have problems, versus saying that rural America is a problem.

Congratulations to Ashoka and its four rural innovators for putting this session together, and for the ambitious projects they discuss.

More from this series

The authors, on a sub-freezing January 2017 morning at the Montgomery County Airpark, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about to fly toward the west on the final leg of their previous trip. A new journey begins soon. (The yellow cord is to heat the engine sufficiently so it will start.) Around them is all the luggage their Cirrus SR22 would carry, for the next few months on the road.
The authors, on a sub-freezing January 2017 morning at the Montgomery County Airpark, in Gaithersburg, Maryland, about to fly toward the west on the final leg of their previous trip. A new journey begins soon. (The yellow cord is to heat the engine sufficiently so it will start.) Around them is all the luggage their Cirrus SR22 would carry, for the next few months on the road. Courtesy of James Fallows

In the summer of 2013, nearly six years ago, my wife—Deb Fallows—and I announced in this space the beginning of a project to visit smaller towns around the country. These were places that usually show up in the news only as backdrops for national-politics coverage, or when some human or natural disaster has struck. Our goal was to report on how schools, businesses, families, and civic life were faring “out there.”

Our means of travel, from one small airport to the next, would be our little four-seat, single-engine, Cirrus SR22 propeller airplane—a model that has become the best-selling small plane of its type around the world, because of its built-in parachute for the entire plane.

Our Towns (Penguin Random House)

Early in 2017, after spending most of four years on the road, Deb and I announced in this space that this first stage of the journey was over. We would be flying from our home in Washington, D.C.; down along the Atlantic coast to Georgia; and then across the south and west of the country to my original home in inland California, the small city of Redlands, to write a book about what we had seen. We did so; that book, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, was published in 2018. It drew on what we had found, learned, and described in hundreds of web posts and several articles for The Atlantic through the preceding years.

Now we’re beginning the next stage of the journey. In this space over the coming months, we’ll be posting a new set of reports, from an additional set of towns, about a new set of developments and a new range of possibilities for locally based renewal efforts around the country.