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Libraries in Working Cities step up to support communities during COVID-19 Libraries in Working Cities step up to support communities during COVID-19

Boston Fed initiative recognizes libraries as key connectors throughout the pandemic Boston Fed initiative recognizes libraries as key connectors throughout the pandemic

January 14, 2022

After the Great Recession hit Rhode Island, the Cranston Public Library became a lifeline for community members searching for jobs. Library Director Ed Garcia recalled reference librarians spending hours a day helping people with online applications and resumes.

Twelve years later, when unemployment rates spiked again amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it was a familiar scene for Garcia. But this time, the library was better prepared, with a full range of digital skills classes for jobseekers.

Around New England, local libraries have played a key role in supporting communities before and during the pandemic. Throughout their time as partners of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Working Cities program, libraries have proven to be crucial advocates for local employment, education, and community dialogue.

Colleen Dawicki, deputy director of the Boston Fed’s Working Places initiative, said it’s important to recognize how libraries promote civic engagement and strengthen connections between city departments and community groups – key goals of the Working Cities initiative.

“In many communities, the public library is a place where everyone feels welcome,” she said. “Having that neutral, accessible place where residents can gather has been crucial for Working Cities teams.”

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Prioritizing the immediate needs of job seekers

The Working Cities Challenge is part of the Boston Fed's Working Places initiative, which promotes economic development around New England. The Working Cities Challenge focuses on smaller, post-industrial cities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. A related initiative, the Working Communities Challenge, is centered on rural communities in Maine and Vermont.

Two “core elements” of the challenges, which Working Places leaders see as critical to a community’s success, are “collaborative leadership” and “community engagement.” In some cases, the libraries have helped enabled both elements in tandem, so both support each other, said Jessica Grant-Domond, a community development analyst at the Boston Fed.

For instance, in East Hartford, Connecticut, Library Director Sarah Kline Morgan said the library’s partnership with the local Working Cities team – East Harford CONNects – has created a weeklong series of career-readiness workshops for high school students seeking summer employment. And members of the East Harford CONNects Resident Advisory Council are working closely with the library and national nonprofit Living Room Conversations to lead community discussions on sensitive or locally important issues.

“We've had a lot of momentum around community participation,” she said.

Opening doors for families by ending fines

In Cranston, Garcia realized during his work with local schools several years ago that many children wanted to use the library, but their cards were blocked because their families could not afford to pay off fines.

With the help of city leadership, the library waived the students’ fees and permanently removed fines for children’s materials. During the pandemic, they decided to do the same for the rest of the library’s offerings, with a few exceptions. Their push to make resources available to all residents, regardless of economic status, led to a larger change in the state library system.

“It's been a really big boon for our community,” Garcia said. “Now in Rhode Island, at least 70% of our libraries are fine-free in some way around the state. …That all came out of our collaboration with the schools.”

Grant-Domond said this kind of “systems change,” in which Garcia’s advocacy led to reforms at not just his library, but also the system behind it, is another “core element” of the Working Places initiatives.

The Cranston library has also partnered with the local Working Cities team, OneCranston, to organize community discussions on topics including racial equity, climate, and affordable housing.

A bridge over the digital divide

As in many communities, the library in Danbury, Connecticut, is a place where residents can find internet and computer access. And it also offers internet hotspots and digital devices that residents can borrow and take home.

“The biggest (issue) is trying to bridge the gap of the digital divide,” said Library Director Katie Pearson, who also sits on the executive board of DanburyWORKS, the city’s Working Cities team.

“We have such a diverse community and a lot of people from other countries who are just immigrating here,” Pearson said. “It's really important for them to be able to get connected, and they don't always have the resources to do so.”

During the pandemic, the Danbury library shifted some of its educational programming online. This allowed some families who could not attend in-person library activities to join remotely.

“We're always looking to work with more community partners and (learn) how we can better the community,” Pearson said.

Learn more about the Boston Fed Working Places initiative here.

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