How the past helps shape the Library’s future

As a proud graduate of the University of Cincinnati’s undergraduate history program, I have always been intrigued by the lessons we can learn from the past. Lately, I again find myself thinking a lot about history. After a day full of meetings over videoconference with Library staff and other state and national library leaders, I try to steal a few minutes with the book I’m currently reading, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent Team of Rivals, opens a new window. This has probably put me in a historical mindset, especially as I read about the difficult decisions faced by President Lincoln and I think of the challenges faced by leaders such as Ohio’s own Governor DeWine. 

I proudly wear my mantle of history buff and public policy nerd. Full disclosure: I have participated in not one but three tabletop simulations featuring spreading pandemics and natural disasters, one involving public servants from around the world at the Harvard Kennedy School of Public Policy, which I remember fondly. It is probably no surprise that as a result of my education and professional development experiences my mind now turns to the crises of the past that the United States has met and survived. 

It is in that mindset that I was struck recently thinking of all our Library has lived through in its long and storied history. The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County opened on March 14, 1853, and is one of the oldest libraries in the nation. Think of what our Library has survived: the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression. The Library had just turned 10 years old the year that Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address. 

Like our community, the Library remains. It survives. It thrives. This is something to contemplate when in need of perspective on our current situation. 

My own personal history informs my response to the current challenge we face. When I was 17, I was blessed with the opportunity (I would definitely not have thought of it that way back then) of a traumatic health crisis which ultimately caused one of my lungs to collapse. 

I think today of what will be faced by many, and I remember the pain I felt drawing in a breath, and I know that it is very serious business. During my hospitalization, doctors were afraid to treat my underlying ailment for fear of causing additional complications which probably would have killed me. My mom tells the story of how she walked down the hospital halls until she found a seasoned general surgeon willing to move forward with the available information about my condition due to the urgency of my situation. I am very happy he did. I carry that gift and that memory with me to this day, and it reminds me to take matters very seriously and not take lightly the lives we have been given. 

It pains me beyond measure that the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is closed to the public for in-person visits at this time. Having worked for public libraries since I was 18, and for 20 years at 8 different Library locations in our system, the Library is like family to me. I take my responsibility as just the 15th director in our Library’s history very seriously. I know how much Library staff wants to get back to serving our community as fully as we always have, and will again.

Cherished Library visitors, have you ever wondered if the staff at your local branch feels the same way about you as you do about them? They do. They miss seeing you and helping you. 

It gives me equal pain, though, to imagine any of our storytime moms, dads, or grandparents and their children and grandchildren, or our book club members, or tutors, or small business members being put at risk. And so we are putting great efforts into the services we can provide virtually and we are planning in earnest for the moments when we can restart our other services. 

It is in some ways a cruel irony that two of the most checked out books this spring, opens a new window were The Giver of Stars, opens a new window by Jojo Moyes and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek , opens a new windowby Kim Michele Richardson. The story of packhorse librarians is inspiring, but I also have thought, what if traveling from holler to holler in the hills of Kentucky had meant carrying illness from home to home? Even in the Great Depression, when our bookmobiles carried books to far reaches of the county, we did not do so at the risk of carrying a pandemic along with them. 

I mentioned the crises that the community and the Library have lived through. The Library is honored to hold in trust a Cincinnati treasure, a rare daguerreotype taken of the city on Sunday, September 24, 1848. The daguerreotype was taken on the other side of the Ohio River and is so detailed due to the remarkable way it was photographed, that the tiniest details can be made out, down to the hands on a church steeple clock and everyday Cincinnatians walking along the riverfront.  

The year after the daguerreotype was taken, in 1849, the worst cholera epidemic to hit Ohio occurred, and more than 8,000 Cincinnatians died. 

Four years later, in 1853, your Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County was born. It turned 167 years old on March 14 this year. These precious photographs, opens a new window record the time of its birth, and surely photographs of our community, and all that we accomplished, will be preserved by the Library and shared with the public another 167 years from now.

We are here for you, opens a new window. We face these difficult and once-in-a-lifetime challenges together with you, and together we are learning how to adapt. We will use all of the lessons we learn to be better than ever when the Library moves into our recovery and reopening phase.

We will get through this. Together. As we always have. 

For the latest Library service updates and resources, please visit our COVID-19 resource page, opens a new window.