It seems that everyone in the United States is glued to the story about Flint and the water crisis. What role does a public library play in a civic crisis such as this? Flint Public Library (FPL) has defined three specific ways in which the library supports the local community. How does the library fit into the solutions for the longer term issues? First, and perhaps most importantly, FPL staff are actively engaged in the conversations about what to do and how to mobilize resources. “We are at the table,” says Kay Schwartz, Library Director. “We have to know who is doing what and how people can get help. Flint has a well-developed network of organizations that collaborate effectively. We don’t need to create the solution. We just need to know what it looks like and know how people can access it.”
Second, the library is a 24/7 gateway to critical information. “We are trusted and accessible,” continues Schwartz. “Two of our librarians are the go-to people during library hours for patron questions. We have also put a link on our homepage. Users can go straight to all the relevant sites for accessing resources and getting information.” New information pours in almost daily. Printed literature seems to be outdated almost as fast as it reaches the racks. The library helps ensure that people can immediately find fresh, current, and relevant information. An additional wrinkle in Flint is that many households do not have broadband service. The library has more than sixty computers, as well as building-wide Wi-Fi for patrons. “We are not only the doorway to information; we are the knob that allows people to even get into the door!” says Schwartz.
And third, Flint Public Library links generous people around the country into the community response system. Schwartz says the calls are amazing. “We just got a call from someone in Detroit who wanted to donate ten thousand bottles of water that had been collected from individual donors. He thought bringing it to the Library was the best solution. We were able to link him instead to the centralized distribution sources. In that way, he could merge into the existing system rather than creating something new at the library.” “Our community trusts us,” attests Schwartz. “We take that trust seriously, and want to provide information when and how people need it.”
Flint Public Library’s mission is to be the go-to place for learning across the lifespan. One of their three strategic priorities is supporting family literacy, with a special focus on early childhood literacy. “We are working very closely with the Flint and Genesee Literacy Network to create a web of solutions for children who have been permanently affected by lead,” continues Schwartz. “The library takes its commitment to early childhood literacy very seriously. We will take every step to support parents and children with evidence-based, appropriate tools and programs to nurture development.”
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha. Director of Hurley Medical Center’s Pediatrics Program in Flint and the pediatrician who helped expose the water problem, says, “Lead is an irreversible neurotoxin. It actually drops a child’s IQ, and it causes behavior problems, problems focusing, problems doing schoolwork. Not every kid is going to have every problem, but in large-scale studies, this is what lead does. We are advocating for evidence-based interventions that work for all children who are at risk of developmental issues—so early literature programs and universal preschool, access to nutrition.”
“Most children will not become ready to read solely by coming to library story time once a week,” says Schwartz. “The best way for the Library to make an impact is to teach parents simple activities that nurture pre-reading skills and can easily fit into their home lives.” FPL has identified early literacy education as an area where it can expand its reach and leverage its current expertise. This fits nicely into the strategic vision, and very clearly supports existing and emerging community needs.
The library has begun implementing Every Child Ready to Read® —a parent education program for parents of children ages 0–5, both inside the library and in outreach settings. The program was developed by the Public Library Association in 2004 and has been widely adopted by other public libraries. Following research-based changes to the program in its 2011, it is now a platform for libraries to teach parents how to use five simple practices (talking, singing, reading, writing, and playing) in ways that can help their children become ready to read.