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Here’s how libraries in Fairmont City and Ferguson are redefining what it means to be a library

Moyan Brenn | Flickr

The concept of a library is over 5,000 years old, but that doesn’t mean these community institutions are stuck in the Stone Age. On Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air, we heard from librarians from two different communities in the region, in Ferguson, Mo., and Fairmont City, Ill., and how they are innovating exactly what the concept of a library is.

“I’ve been a librarian almost 40 years and it is not your parents’ library, it is not your grandparents’ library anymore,” said Vicky Hart, the executive director of the Mississippi Valley Library District in the Metro East. “It is the library of the community. It is not just about books, but everything else including programming for children, programming for teens. For us in Fairmont City, that might include the ability to fax internationally, to let someone fax documents home.”

In Fairmont City, librarians are working to serve a population that consists of 71.4 percent immigrants who speak Spanish as their first or only language. That means the library hires from within the community for Spanish speakers and interpreters as well as hosts homework time for students whose parents may speak little to no English.

Hart as well as Katie Heaton, the manager of the Fairmont City Library Center, discussed what it was like to create a library from the ground-up with the community in mind. The organization was only started in 2000, the village had not previously hosted a public library or school. First, the parochial school in town offered a room for a makeshift library. Later, the library moved to the American Legion building, which the library eventually bought.

The librarians had to prove their worth to the community in order to stick around. 

“We had to sell the idea of what a library does for a community,” Heaton said. “They’re like ‘Why do I need a library? What will it be to my benefit?’ And so it came down to a simple challenge on our part: ‘If you have a question, bring that question to me and I’ll figure out the answer for you. Or I’ll figure out how to get the answer for you.’ Once we put that challenge out there, all sorts of questions walked through the door. And as the needs unfolded in front of us, that’s when we figured out ways to fill those needs.”

The library now provides after-school and weekend activities for kids in the community as well as services like bicycle repair and financial services. Many of these services are provided through partnerships within the community itself.

In Ferguson, Mo., the library has expanded community programming and literacy programs as well as resources on race in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. Scott Bonner, the director of the Ferguson Municipal Public Library, said that the library has been functioning in high-gear since 2014.

The library received $450,000 in donations, which meant they were able to operate like a better-funded library. They were able to expand programs to focus on early literacy in the Ferguson-Florissant School District, launch literacy kits in the community, start book clubs around race and expand STEM and STEAM programming.

Listen to the full discussion about the ways libraries are changing to serve their communities here:Three librarians from Ferguson, Mo. and Fairmont City, Ill., discuss the new ways they are serving their communities with St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air and Cityscape.