For Scott Bonner, it was his first job as a library director. On July 1, 2014, he started at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library, the library’s only full-time librarian. Just weeks later, on August 9, an unarmed Michael Brown was shot by police. But amid the strife and worldwide media attention that has followed that tragic event, the library has become one of the few positive headlines to come out of Ferguson. And not only has the library’s work earned admiration, donations have also poured in, nearly $400,000 so far.
At the 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting, Bonner was invited by ALA to lead a workshop on “leading in a time of crisis.” PW caught up with Bonner for a wide-ranging talk about the library’s efforts, and life in Ferguson.
PW: Can you talk a little about what it's like these days in your community? I've read about the events in Ferguson, I've watched on television, but you've been living it.
Scott Bonner: It's very complex. It's not nearly as simple as what's portrayed on TV, and it's not nearly as extreme, in some ways. What is presented on the news as protestors vs. police is actually more like some weird mosaic of fractured perspectives and people. Life has become somewhat politically fraught. But that said, most of the time it is just normal, town life.
What's it like to have the media descend on your community like this?
You know, I don't know anyone in Ferguson who was anything but disgusted with the media's portrayal of Ferguson—and I've talked to people from all different perspectives. No one is happy with what the media has said about us. It's all so oversimplified. We’re portrayed as a war zone and it's not like that. Now, if you were in a certain part of town at a certain time of night, sure, it was no joke. There was tear gas, and rubber bullets. But, you’d also see a lot of the very same people coming out the next morning, cleaning up the streets, straightening up the lawns, that kind of thing. So it's complicated.
One bright spot in the coverage, perhaps, was the library’s story. How did the library's efforts get started?
It started with some teachers and the “ad hoc school.” The Ferguson-Florissant School District was supposed to start up on a Thursday, but ended up closing the Thursday and Friday after Mike Brown was shot. That surprised no one, because things were really rough at night at that the time. But, then the school announced they would be closed for the entire next week. And that kind of shocked everybody—a week of no school—because you have parents that have planned their childcare up to a certain date. They've already been burdened by two days of closures, and now it’s another whole week. If you're working three part-time jobs to make ends meet, and any one of them could fire you for not showing up one day, that's a big deal.
So, that Monday morning, a local arts teacher at one of the elementary schools in Ferguson came in and said, "I've got a few teachers, and if you've got a few empty tables, we'd like to do some tutoring." Before she even got the next sentence out, I jumped. "Heck yes!” I said. “Let's get as many teachers in here as you want."
How did the media come to pick up on what was happening in the library?
In large part, I think, because some of the teachers were out in the street holding big homemade signs that said "Teachers want to teach. Bring your kids here today." Some members of the media saw that, and suddenly, we had reporters showing up. By Tuesday morning, it was all over the news. People realized that we were there, trying to do whatever we can, and so they started bringing their kids, and it just got bigger and bigger, until it was as much as we could possibly handle. By the end, we had more than 200 students, more than 100 volunteers and teachers, and five or six different community-focused organizations all coming together to build this school thing at the library, which eventually overflowed into the First Baptist Church.
I think this is a point, we should probably emphasize—there wasn’t a press campaign by the library, right?
Right, and especially back in the very beginning, I was just being completely reactive. I wasn't thinking beyond that day, beyond “what can we do right now?” The "ad hoc school" thing got bigger than any program I've ever been part of. But the fact is, any time any teacher would come to me and ask if they could do some tutoring, it would be “heck yes, of course!” Continuing education, right—that's part of what libraries do.
In the end, what the media caught in Ferguson was just libraries being libraries. I appreciate the heck out of people saying you're doing a great job, and every time I hear it I want to say thank you. At the same time, I think librarians that have dealt with things like Hurricane Katrina, or with earthquakes, and that kind of stuff, they have done a lot more than what we’re doing. We're just being a library. We're doing community-focused programming, and that is just normal stuff. That we became such a big story is a testament to, for one the contrast between Ferguson’s image in the media and what the library was doing, but also to how little some in the media know about libraries, right? A lot of reporters were like “you're doing what? I've never heard of such a thing!" But this is what libraries all over country do every day.
The donations must be a bittersweet result from this tragic episode. How do you handle that? What will that money mean for Ferguson?
Oh, of course. And we’re really, really grateful. Our yearly budget is $400,000, and we’ve gotten that in donations. As for spending the money, I'm checking everything I do with the board, as I do it, and the board itself has formed a planning committee to ensure we responsibly handle every dollar that comes through. But, we've already moved on putting out an ad for a new children's librarian, and that will be made possible because of these funds. And, there are more minor, but important things, like we are redoing the carpet in the library. We’ve also talked about establishing a foundation to make the most of the money, long-term.
You mention libraries that have handled earthquakes and disasters, and those situations are obviously terrible, and tragic. But disasters like that usually bring a community together. In Ferguson, however, the politics surrounding Michael Brown’s shooting has threatened to drive your community apart. How have you managed that?
I do not consider myself to be a naive person, and I am still surprised at how divisive this has all been. At the library, we are and must be purposely, deliberately politically neutral, because the library has to be open to everyone. And, that goes for me, too, as an individual, because a lot of people don't see the difference between what the library director thinks and what the library thinks. I’ve never spoken about my views or my politics.
But, I have to say, even in the middle of such divisiveness, there are things that will always bring people together. If you say "the kids need you," people from all perspectives will show up. And in Ferguson, they did. So when you provide people something they can rally around, they do rally, even if they disagree with each other.
Tell me about your staff? I know you'd be the first one to give the credit to them. How are they doing?
Well, first off, let me say, we've asked a heck of a lot from them. We've asked for extra hours from staff on a volunteer basis. And the staff has really stepped up for the community. Now, I do not hold the staff to the standard I have set for myself, in terms of the politics. At one point very early on I encouraged everyone on staff to speak their beliefs. But when they're actually on the desk facing patrons, I asked them to be apolitical. And, if they want to talk with their co-workers about things, that's fine, too, but do it in the back room. And, if your co-worker says, "No, not now," then back off. So, with those standards—not getting into arguments with patrons and respecting co-workers’ boundaries, I have to say the staff have gotten along really well, and have really come together with each other to serve the community, even though they may have differing opinions.