On Feb. 14, 2018, Valentine’s Day, a teenage gunman shattered the hearts of Parkland, Florida. Armed with a legally purchased assault rifle, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz killed 17 and injured 14 more at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in just six minutes—another mass shooting in America.
As librarians prepare to gather in Philadelphia for the Public Library Association 2018, the community of Parkland will be very much on their minds. So too, will the larger issue of gun violence in America. With a debate in the profession about whether libraries should be “neutral,” how can librarians weigh in on the divisive political issue of gun control—an issue that the young students of Parkland are now bravely pursuing? How can libraries prepare support their communities in the wake of such a tragedy?
PW recently caught up with Joe Green, director of the Parkland Public Library, to hear how he, and the community he serves, is dealing with the aftermath of the tragic shooting there—a nightmare no community should ever have to face, but in America today has become all too common.
PW: I don’t know where to start except to say how heartbroken I am for what’s happened—and yet I am so inspired by the kids in your community. I know Parkland is going to be on the minds of public librarians when they meet in Philadelphia for the Public Library Association meeting.
Joe Green: Well, thank you. I’ll tell you, the kids have been great, and the whole community—parents, teachers, and everyone—have really pulled together. It’s a remarkable thing to see. And I can tell you that we’ve gotten wonderful letters of support from other libraries offering their help. Believe me, it is really encouraging to get those letters and those offers. It’s always nice to know that people have your back.
If I may ask, how is the community coping?
I think there are two responses that are prevalent. One is anger, and the other is a real desire to become active. You see these great kids motivated to see if they can make something happen. At the same time, there is—and there is going to be for a long while—a grieving process. You see the marches and the public demonstrations, but people also need to find quiet time, and time for themselves.
Parkland is a small town, in many ways very much like Newtown, Connecticut, where they had their own experience, unfortunately, a few years ago. It’s a town of about 30,000 people. And it’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody. Almost all the activities in the town come back to the schools. People move here because of the schools and because it is considered such a safe place to be. I believe in my heart it will come back to that, but I know it’s going to take a while to get there.
How about those kids, many of whom I am sure you know from the library. In the immediate aftermath of this horrible tragedy, they are inspiring the nation.
I know the teachers better than I know the kids, but yes, I do know some of the kids. In fact, one of the kids who was at the White House is a volunteer here at the library, shelving for us and other things. The thing that will impress you, if you haven’t seen it already, is how smart these kids are—scary smart. But you have to remind yourself, too, that they’re kids. And many of them are having a real hard time. It’s been very, very tough.
Can you talk about some of the ways you and the public library are supporting the community after such a shocking, terrible tragedy?
We acted as a grievance center for the first week after the shooting, for the teachers and the faculty members at the school. In terms of counseling, that kind of thing, we’re helping to identify resources and places where people can go for that. But more than anything, we don’t have a community center here in Parkland, so we’ve been getting requests to have a lot of meetings here. We’ve seen a lot of the kids who are planning the March 24 rally meet here to do some of their planning, for example, and the kids have also set up a letter-writing campaign. They come here to write letters, and they’re gathering all the letters here. We also see a lot of the parents, of course. The community has also started a poster campaign in memory of the Parkland 17. Hundreds of posters and banners, some hand drawn, some professionally made, have been placed here at the library prior to transport to Stoneman Douglas High School. And the posters, cards, and banners have come from throughout the United States. The campaign has been beautiful.
These amazing kids have sparked a national conversation about guns. Is the library able to support that effort with resources and collections?
The discussions about guns that have occurred so far—for example, I don’t know whether you saw the town hall on CNN, but that’s the kind of expectation that the people in Parkland have right now, how they see discussing guns. They want to do it in a large, very public, very, media-savvy kind of way. The library does have information on guns, and gun control; we do have a collection of materials. But right now, for the kids, their interest is more about how to get organized, how to become activists.
Is this tragedy something that you ever really thought about or prepared for as a librarian? Had you ever really thought about guns or gun violence in your community, or in your library?
I’ve worked in a lot of libraries in my career. But in a place like Parkland, the safest city in the state, the thought of something like this happening? There’s no dress rehearsal for this kind of thing. Of course, these things happen, unfortunately too often, and I can tell you that the staff here has gone through active-shooter training. But did I ever think this would happen in Parkland? No. Other cities I’ve worked in, we’ve had security systems installed, armed guards, all those kinds of things. But they were larger, more urban environments, and Parkland is very much a bedroom community. I don’t think this is something anyone thought we’d ever have to confront here.
Can you a talk a little about your day-to-day in the wake of the shooting? What it’s like for you to come to work at the library and serve such a small, tight-knit community that has been so shattered?
On one hand we’re doing our best to try to maintain a sense of normalcy. The library’s been open throughout this whole experience. And we want people to regard the library as they always have, so we’re trying to maintain library services as best we can. On the other hand, we’re trying to be extremely sensitive to everyone’s needs. The first thing you learn when you study library science is to know your community and what they need.
For example, we take pride in thinking that the reason our kids are so smart is that they get a good start at the library. We have a very active early literacy program in the form of story times. Each story time is made up of eight classes per week. Normally, we have 15–20 kids and their parents attending each class, but we haven’t had that kind of attendance recently, as you might imagine. But we think they will start to come back soon.
Also, we are getting ready to break ground to expand this library building. This building was opened in 2003, at the time serving a population of about 11,000 people, and the population within the next five years will be 40,000. Parkland’s one of the fastest-growing cities in the state. When I took the job in 2013, I was asked to take the library to another level. So I feel I have an obligation to get the library to that next level, and to make sure it prospers. But right now, everybody’s focused, as we should be, on the community. We’re not really thinking about anything else but that right now.
There’s a lot of national attention on the community right now. For those of us who want to help, who want to show our support for Parkland, what do you think the community would appreciate most?
If I could speak on behalf of the community, and this is my own personal observation, I think the kids would like to know that there are people sending letters to their elected officials urging them to become sensible about gun laws. One person said it’s a shame in this country that we care more about protecting principle than we do about protecting people. As I said before, there’s a lot of anger in this city, and you can understand why. So if we could get people from all around the country to send letters or to call their elected officials to say enough is enough, I think that would go a long way towards making people feel that the country is behind Parkland.