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St. Louis County Library wins national award after expanding services in the pandemic

Diaper distribution at SLCL.jpg
St. Louis County Library
Workers with the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank distributed diapers to people in need at St. Louis County Library branches. It was one of several additional social services the library system took on during the coronavirus pandemic.

St. Louis County libraries boosted their efforts during the coronavirus pandemic, adding initiatives to distribute emergency supplies and help students prepare for remote learning.

In recognition of those efforts, the library system received the nation's highest honor for libraries: the National Medal for Museum and Library Services. St. Louis County Library was one of three to receive the honor from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Three museums also received recognition.

“Our employees have worked incredibly hard to be a resource for the St. Louis region and to provide services and entertainment and fun and all the things that libraries do — and particularly in the middle of a pandemic,” said St. Louis County Library Director and CEO Kristen Sorth.

The library system funded the extra services with $5.1 million from the federal CARES Act and $2 million from the federal infrastructure bill. It also found partners in nonprofit organizations. Libraries worked with Operation Food Search to distribute more than 2 million meals in branch parking lots, and with St. Louis Area Diaper Bank to distribute diapers and period supply kits. The Digital Equity Initiative helped supply students with laptops and older adults with internet-ready tablets.

St. Louis County libraries also invited county health workers to distribute free masks, conduct coronavirus tests and hold COVID-19 vaccine clinics. The Florissant Valley library branch hosted a recurring legal clinic for patrons.

“We got tons of comments like, ‘Oh, thank you so much for doing this. I didn’t know libraries did things like this.’ We heard that all through the pandemic. Which helped us, just as people and employees, it kind of kept us going through that stressful time,” said Michelle Hawkins, manager of the Rock Road branch.

Sorth reduced the library workforce in August 2020, laying off 122 part-time workers after libraries shifted to a curbside model and suspended many in-person services because of the pandemic. The St. Louis American reported at the time that Black employees comprised about one-third of the layoffs. Critics drew fault with the layoffs coming at a time when the library system had an annual budget of more than $500,000 for off-duty police officers hired as security.

Sorth said Wednesday that some of those 122 jobs were converted to full-time status, and that she refilled all of the positions once libraries resumed more in-person services in 2021. The library no longer hires police officers, she said, but instead taps in-house employees who are “trained in library values and our strategic plan” to provide security.

The National Medal for Library and Museum Services is not the first honor for St. Louis County Library under its current leadership. The American Library Association bestowed on Sorth its Ernest A. DiMattia Award for Innovation and Service to Community and Profession in 2019. The annual award is for a public librarian who “demonstrates leadership in anticipating emerging trends in services, products and technologies that will enhance the library’s position in its community.”

Libraries around the country are increasingly taking on responsibility for more social services, Sorth said.

“When people are trying to figure out how to solve a problem, they often come to the library. It's a place where people are there to help you. And so it just really makes sense for the library to play that role in the community,” said Sorth.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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