CLEVELAND — Public libraries used to be considered essential because of the access they provided to books and reading material. Now, they're 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 without cars must hug the curb.
On this day, Mekhi Jackson does it anyway, just to reach the library.
“I also walked on the road," Jackson said. "Not in the middle, though, but on the sides and the corners like that."
“Just so I can have some fun," Jackson explained.
Jackson is one of dozens who show up daily for Kids’ Café. The library hosts it. It also distributes COVID tests, though on this day they’re out. Around Cleveland, and around the country, libraries do more.
Tracy Strobel oversees Cuyahoga County’s public libraries. They’re far from the only system that has evolved beyond books and embraced social services. In Indianapolis, they’ve hired a full-time social worker. In Baltimore, they house a drug prevention program. Many who study cities view libraries as precious space for public needs.
“It’s kind of maybe a reckoning for us," said Melanie Huggins, who runs the Public Library Association. “Public libraries have as part of their DNA, this belief in championing marginalized communities. It's always been a part of our work. I think sometimes it just quietly sat represented itself as a book on a shelf.”
Now it looks like food distribution and computer classes. On another snowy day in Cuyahoga County, 7th through 12th graders in Richmond Heights walk into school by walking past the newest branch of the library. It’s attached. It, too, is out of COVID tests.
“I’ve been a librarian since the early 90s," said Strobel. "I didn’t think somebody we’d be doing passport applications and having a day care in our facilities.”
But with services come questions.
“That’s not why some people signed up for this work," Huggins said.
The past few months have brought public concerns—that library staff is being asked to handle an increasing load of complex assignments that this broader social purpose may not be the right one.
“And then the external tension," said Huggins, "is someone else like an elected official saying, ‘Why is the library distributing COVID tests?’”
In Cuyahoga County, they continue to do more. Two days after the snow, in another branch – one with its own Kids Café, one awaiting its own COVID tests – the Cleveland Food Bank unloads a truck. The library holds a mobile pantry every Wednesday.
If it all seems like too much, it sounds just right to Mekhi Jackson.
“To become a doctor, help a lot of people, maybe even get this COVID off. The library has been a great place to go."