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A Library At Work While Grieving

January 8, 2016

January 8, 2016

By Michele Farrell
IMLS Program Officer

Editor’s note: Michele met with Kimberly Bowlin, head of special events for Charleston County Public Library, not Kim Odom, as previously reported.

Recently I visited the Charleston County Public Library* in South Carolina and met with Cynthia Bledsoe, Deputy Director, Kimberly Bowlin, head of special events for Charleston County Public Library, and Steven Schwengel, Electronic Resources Librarian. The purpose of my visit was to learn about IMLS funded projects. Instead, I learned so much more, particularly how the staff is dealing with the loss of colleague Cynthia Hurd, the manager of the St. Andrews Branch who was at the prayer meeting at the Mother Emanuel AME Church on that fateful day, June 17, when a gunman went on a rampage.

Charleston County Public Library, Charleston, SC Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
Charleston County Public Library, Charleston, SC Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC

While coming to grips with the loss of a valued team member with over 20 years in the library system, the library also helped the community grieve and cope in the aftermath of the shootings. The library had guest books in all 16 of its locations to allow the community to write condolences and express themselves. They created HeARTS mend Hearts, weekly hour-and-a-half long art therapy sessions led by a local psychoanalyst, a psychiatrist and an arts educator. With a backdrop of soft, soothing music, participants were given pencils, paper, and crayons to draw whatever came to mind, or not, to help them express themselves and their grief.

In addition to the art therapy program, the library archivist and staff from other Charleston institutions worked with the church to preserve donations left at the church and created a database of all the emails, cards and donations received at all locations.

Mother Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, SC
Mother Emanual AME Church, Charleston, SC

To this day, library officials said cards are still arriving from all over the world, and during my visit in July, the grief of the community was still very evident. With the main branch of the library just one block away from Mother Emanuel, I could see crowds outside the church throughout the day.  Many were leaving a note or flowers in remembrance of the deceased.  Others just stood and stared silently at the church.

It was inspiring to see the resilience of the Charleston County Public Library in the midst of this tragedy. For 2016, the library is partnering with the College of Charleston and others to plan a series of events to explore the ongoing struggles of racial injustice in Charleston and throughout the United States. You can learn more about that series here.

Their continued work in the community, despite a very personal loss, is a testament to the type of commitment we see from library professionals all around the country.

*The Charleston County Public Library has 16 locations, a bookmobile, and serves a community of 130,000 with a wider service area of over 500,000.

Michele Farrell is senior library grant program officer in the Office of Library Services within IMLS. She can be reached at