An Interview with Scott Bonner, Ferguson Librarian

I am not a smart enough person, or eloquent enough, to talk about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. I’m not even going to try. I will say that, as I’ve watched events unfold, I’ve been struck at how the community, and in some ways, the country, has come together to support the citizens of Ferguson. When I saw how the Ferguson Library became not only a safe space, but a source of real positivity and support, it made me want to be a better librarian. Not only did Ferguson library workers step up their game, but so did teachers and volunteers of all sorts. I wanted to know how, despite so much strife and conflict, the library seamlessly became a hub of strength and solace. I contacted Scott Bonner, a librarian at the Ferguson Library. He was nice enough to answer some questions.

(Note, this interview took place over a fairly long stretch of time, because Scott’s obviously very busy. Please excuse any weird time continuity issues).

Ingrid Abrams: On a typical day, what is your library like? 

Scott Bonner: We are a small library, in an old suburb of St. Louis.  I am the only full time librarian.  All other employees are part-time library assistants, with one part-time administrative assistant.  As a result of not having reference staff or a Children’s Librarian or a Programming Librarian, we do not get a lot of reference work, and have far less activity involving kids than I would like.  I only started July 1st, so I’ve got plans to improve those areas, but I haven’t been able to move on them yet.  What we do get is steady traffic from the community.  Our public access computers are full pretty much all day.  We have good circulation.  The atmosphere is quiet and businesslike, with the occasional person talking way too loud on a cellphone.  My day is often filled with administrative duties like signing vendor checks, contacting various service providers to get things done, making introductory contacts with community organizations, and troubleshooting technology.  I am guessing it’s normal activity for a small library with limited staff and a new director, and a very good thing.

IA: Since the recent turmoil in your community, how has your library changed? Are the expectations of the patrons different? What are you offering that you’ve never offered before?

SB: This last week has been radically different, and just the kind of change that I want to see.  Suddenly the library is full and overfull.  Everyone knows we’re here.  Regular library traffic continued, thanks in part to me trying to contain the big program to areas away from the front desk and computers.  But, obviously, we’ve had an explosion of activity everywhere else, and it’s not like we’re big enough to have a sense of “everywhere else”.  Everything is in sight of everything, after all.  Lots of kids, lots of people who’ve never been to the library before, lots of noise, lots of camera crews blocking doorways and aisles.  I think we did the best job we could of partitioning school from library, but it was not anything like a normal day.  It was a good deal better than a normal day.

This last week, we made an ad-hoc school!  I offered the library’s space, and put out metaphorical fires, and played taskmaster to the press, and the teachers and volunteers made an actual, working school.  We spread across two locations, the Ferguson Library and the First Baptist Church up the street.  We had 200 students across locations at our peak — before we established the second location, we had 150 at the library alone on Wednesday, and wasn’t that a crazy day!  We had educational organizations from across St. Louis clamoring to help, including SpringboardSTL, St. Louis Science Center, MO Dept of Conservation, and many more.
Sad to say I have no credit for this photo. Contact me if it's yours.
Sad to say I have no credit for this photo. Contact me if it’s yours. I’ll credit you.

I hope, hope, hope I can use this moment of recognition for the library to move us more toward what it has been like in the last week.  I can’t afford a children’s librarian, but if I can get volunteers who have a passion for running limited children’s programs on the topics that inspire the volunteer, but still within the mission of the library, maybe we can make the most of that while it lasts.  That’s one good way to serve the people of Ferguson.  If libraries are good at anything, it is getting the most bang for every buck.
I am hoping to expand the library’s offerings to better meet the public library mission of supporting continuing education, enhancing cultural literacy, and serving as a center or nexus for the community itself.  This last week was a wonderful example of meeting exactly that mission, and I hope to continue that work.
I don’t yet know how this has changed Ferguson’s expectations for the library.  I hope it has raised expectations, and I hope that we can meet them.
IA: You’ve had lots of outside help, from volunteers and local teachers. How did you facilitate this collaboration?
SB: The initial idea came from a Ferguson teacher, Carrie Pace.  We worked together every step of the way, along with others who came on board like Ms. Smith, Ms. Harper, and Mr. Walker.  Moment to moment collaboration included meeting before the library opened to lay out the game plan, having conversations throughout the day to share ideas and set priorities, and communicating digitally after the day was over.  The teachers formed a social network, mostly built around the Facebook page Parents for Peace, to call for volunteers and lay out plans.  Separately, I used the library’s social networks, mostly Twitter at @fergusonlibrary, to call for volunteers and donations, and keep the community informed.  We started getting almost overwhelming help after the media started publishing stories on our efforts.  With this larger group of volunteers, most of their efforts were coordinated by Ms. Smith and a few others.

IA: Do you have any advice for libraries who, for whatever reason, need to act as a safe space?

SB: Libraries, by default, usually are a safe space.  Much of what we did was just continue to operate normally, staying open and offering services while letting the community know we were there for them.  I did make a sign describing the library as a quiet oasis, partly because I believe it and partly as a gentle reminder to not bring any conflict inside.  For the most part, our patrons did not want to start trouble.  I also personally stayed up to 2 or 3 AM every night watching news and Twitter feeds to see if the situation had spread to the area around the library, and during the day I occasionally drove to areas where protesters were gathering to visually see how large and active the crowds were.  We were closed on the 11th, mostly because of a large gathering nearby and the police response, as well as losing internet connection during those confrontations.  But we were open every day after that, because the area the library is in remained relatively safe.  One thing to keep in mind is that the clashes in the street and looting of businesses all happened at night, and in one section of town, so it was fairly easy to monitor the situation and make sure nothing spread far enough to be a threat to library patrons or staff.

As for the teaching program, we put a number of safety measures in place.  Kids were signed in by a parent or caregiver in the morning and had to be signed out by the same person at night.  We stayed after to make sure every kid was accounted for.  We tried to confine the program to certain areas of the library, and when strange adults entered those areas, the teachers were quick to find out why.  We were careful about keeping groups of kids together and organized when moving from one space to another.  We kept the kids busy so they would not be tempted to wander off.  And so forth.
By the way, we stayed busy every day with normal library traffic.  Not counting the masses of kids, teachers, and volunteers, we continued to serve just as many Ferguson citizens as usual, and sometimes more.

IA: In your opinion, what’s the best way non-Ferguson residents can assist and support your library?

SB: There are three ways that people not-from-our-area have helped us, and all are very much appreciated.

First, we have gotten a lot of thanks and encouragement, which was particularly heartening during the long, exhausting days that the program was going on.
Second, they have donated books to us.  This includes organized attempts to encourage groups to donate, such as the phenomenal efforts by Angie Manfredi to have her followers purchase targeted kids’ books through her blog using Powell’s books.  I have been encouraging folks to send us books with protagonists of color, and books on civil rights history, civic engagement, and emotional healing after trauma.
Third, we have gotten financial donations, which will help us to continue to create community-focused special programs.  I made a paypal donate button on our webpage at, and donors have sent checks to the library at 35 N Florissant Ave, Ferguson, MO 63135.  We’ve got plans to maximize the benefit of each of those dollars.

Since this interview with Scott, I’ve noticed news about Ferguson slipping further and further out of the public eye. Don’t let that happen. Let’s continue to support the citizens of Ferguson, as well as their library, library workers, teachers, and volunteers.

~Love and Libraries, Ingrid

18 thoughts on “An Interview with Scott Bonner, Ferguson Librarian

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