The Healing Power of Libraries

By Amy Stolls

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Sign stating "During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis..."

A sign at the Ferguson Municipal Public Library, Missouri, in August 2014, when riots first broke out after the shooting death of Michael Brown. Image from fergusonlibrary via Instagram

One of the most heartwarming stories I heard last year in my field involved a small, unobtrusive, understaffed library that emerged out of chaos to take care of its community, and the outpouring of love and support from writers and folks around the country who took the time to notice and help.

When schools, shops, and many city services in Ferguson, Missouri, shut down amidst protests following a grand jury’s decision last November not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the Ferguson Municipal Public Library stayed open. “Wifi, water, rest, knowledge. We are here for you,” the library tweeted on Thanksgiving. “If neighbors have kids, let them know teachers are here today, too.” And indeed, they came. “When the kids needed us, people came from all over, from all sides of the situation, from all races and economic strata,” said Scott Bonner, the library’s director and its only full-time librarian. Among the library’s offerings were free “healing kits” for kids with books about dealing with traumatic events.

The word got out and by the end of the year, it was reported that more than 10,000 people (many of them writers) donated signed books and more than $350,000 to the library, 85 percent of the library’s budget for the whole year. Bonner and his board are working on next steps, dreaming up new programs around reading and books that will continue efforts to heal their fractured town.

Librarians and others who serve their communities are to be commended, especially when they go above and beyond their duties as Bonner did. But there’s also something extraordinary about the existence of libraries themselves—more than 120,000 of them in the U.S. to be exact, according to the American Library Association. They’re free and welcoming and offer a safe, calming, communal space to any who enter. But it’s more than that. They’re not just empty rooms with table and chairs and white walls. They’re filled with books, stacks of them so you can walk among and between volumes, touch their spines and feel their words emanating from across the seas and across time and sometimes just across town. Books teach us to be patient in a fast-paced, quick-fix world. They remind us that others have insights worth paying attention to, that there is beauty in our shared language, that in our struggles we are often not alone. They help us heal.

I inherited my love of books and reading in large part from my mom, who had been a reading teacher for decades and loved nothing more than a good novel in which to lose herself. I have fond memories of accompanying her on her frequent visits to our local library. Before she passed away two years ago, she had been debating whether she should give up her cemetery plot and be cremated with my dad, who had decided long ago to be cremated, his ashes dispersed in the ocean. She didn’t want to be alone in the dirt, is what she said to me one quiet afternoon. She was concerned, however, that if she were cremated, I’d have no place to go when I wanted to “visit” her. Oh but I do, I remember saying. I have the perfect place.

I love going to our local library. I try to go at least once a week. Sometimes I take my kids; sometimes I talk to strangers; sometimes I go just to sit and be still amongst the books. I always think of her there. My returned books are flowers on her grave, the library my meadow of contemplation and healing. May it continue to be so for all of us.