Ferguson library director looks for new ways to serve community

Apr 1, 2015

In the days after the August shooting death of Michael Brown, the city of Ferguson was in turmoil. Schools closed. Many businesses closed. But at the city’s public library, director Scott Bonner’s motto was to just say yes.

“We’ve done everything from when the schools shut down for a week, we had an ad hoc school that we put together with volunteers. We’ve had the Small Business Administration come in doing emergency loans. We’ve had Circus Harmony teaching kids how to do circus things. We’ve had all kinds of stuff,” Bonner told “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh on Wednesday. “I hear a lot of good things from people in the community.”

In March, the Library Journal named Bonner a “mover and shaker” for community building. He also received the $10,000 Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Facing Adversity. And donations to the library increased so much that the library’s board has added a second full-time position: Amy Randazzo is in her first month as the children’s services librarian

“By bringing in a second full-time person under the employee roster, it means that we can greatly expand the ongoing and consistent programming that the library has to offer,” Bonner said. 

Part of the nearly $450,000 donated to the Ferguson library in the last year will supplement Randazzo’s position in the coming years, Bonner said. In an average year, the library receives $2,000 to $3,000 in donations, Bonner said. It has an operating budget of $400,000. The library’s board is adjusting its budget to keep both full-time positions.

In addition to adding a new staff member, Bonner also is working to create more programs at the library.

“One of the hard things for a director is figuring out what the needs are in the community so that you can make programming to meet them,” Bonner said. That changed after Brown’s death. “Suddenly, needs from all sides and a lot of different things happening were exposed and came out over those first few months. It clarified my mission, and kind of, in a way, gave impetus and justification for this approach of being very community focused, serving patron needs and thinking about a kind of broader sense of what libraries are for.”

The library’s healing kit program started as a project with a group of college students. Backpacks with the Ferguson library’s logo are filled with picture books about emotional coping, civil rights and civic engagement, as well as information about local therapy options and a stuffed animal.

“The idea is that the family checks out a healing kit; they get the most they can out of it. The kid keeps the stuffed animal; the adult keeps the information. They bring back the bag and books, and we refill it with more and check it out to the next person.”

Since November, when the grand jury’s decision to not indict former police Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death was announced, the library has been very busy, Bonner said.

“I like the library being a little too full and a little too active. I think that’s a sign of a vibrant community, if they have a vibrant library,” Bonner said.

“St. Louis on the Air” discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.