Public libraries began to manage much more than books

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CLEVELAND – Public libraries were once considered essential because of the access they provided to books and reading materials. Now that’s where many go for free meals, to buy COVID tests, or for treatment programs.

For example, look at Garfield Heights, Ohio. When it snows there, they plow the streets but not the sidewalks. Those who don’t have a car must hug the sidewalk.

That day, Mekhi Jackson does it anyway, just to reach the library.

“I also walked the road,” Jackson said. “Not in the middle, but on the sides and corners like that.”

Why?

“Just so I can have fun,” Jackson explained.

Jackson is one of dozens of people who show up at the Kids’ Café daily. The library hosts it. He’s also handing out COVID tests, though that day they were out. Around Cleveland, and across the country, libraries are doing more.

Tracy Strobel oversees Cuyahoga County Public Libraries. They are far from the only system that has evolved beyond books and embraced social services. In Indianapolis, they hired a full-time social worker. In Baltimore, they house a substance abuse prevention program. Many who study cities see libraries as a valuable space for the needs of the public.

“Maybe it’s kind of a record for us,” said Melanie Huggins, who heads the Association of Public Libraries. “Public libraries have in their DNA this belief in standing up for marginalized communities. It’s always been part of our job. I think sometimes, it sat quietly and stood like a book on a shelf.

Now it looks like food distribution and computer classes. Another snowy day in Cuyahoga County, 7and up to 12and Richmond Heights students enter the school past the new library branch. It’s attached. He, too, is out of COVID testing.

“I’ve been a librarian since the early 90s,” Strobel said. “I didn’t think anyone would be applying for passports and having daycare at our facilities.”

But with services come questions.

“That’s not why some people signed up for this job,” Huggins said.

In recent months there have been public concerns that library staff are being asked to handle an increasing load of complex tasks and that this broader social purpose may not be the right one.

“And then the external tension,” Huggins said, “is someone else like an elected official saying, ‘Why is the library giving out COVID tests? “”

In Cuyahoga County, they continue to do more. Two days after the snowfall, at another branch — one with its own Kids Café, one awaiting its own COVID tests — the Cleveland Food Bank unloads a truck. The library organizes a mobile pantry every Wednesday.

If all seems too much, it rings true for Mekhi Jackson.

His dream?

“To become a doctor, help a lot of people, maybe even get rid of this COVID. The library has been a great place to go.”

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