March 31, 2016; Michigan Radio

NPQ has often reported on the evolving role of public libraries, from their efforts to remain relevant (not to mention solvent) as “sticky community centers” to innovative approaches to the types of programs they offer and the types of objects they lend. In Flint, Michigan, these days, the public library is giving new meaning to a traditional role as an archivist of local history, even as it embraces a new role in activism/advocacy. Building on a project that was already underway to gather local stories, Flint Public Library, in collaboration with the nonprofit StoryCorps, began last week to record personal accounts of how residents are coping with the city’s water crisis.

Flint Voices Matter was already underway to collect personal stories from local residents on whatever topics they wished to share before the local water supply was found to be tainted. With recording equipment already in place and library staff trained by StoryCorps to interview people, Phase 2 of Flint Voices Matter was opened last week and will continue through mid-September, with a specific focus on capturing stories of how people are living through the water crisis.

StoryCorps, a spoken-story archiving organization, often has its first-person accounts featured on NPR’s Morning Edition. Its recordings are also sent, with permission from individual storytellers, to the Library of Congress as part of a broad effort to capture the personal histories and everyday experiences of Americans. As described on the library’s website, phase 2 of the Flint project is “providing a chance for every voice to be heard on the issue of Flint water and the endangerment of our young, our old, and our community.”

Kay Schwartz, director of the Flint Public Library, observes, “You know, a lot of the news coverage has talked to the same people over and over and over again. We’re looking to make this opportunity available to ordinary people.”

The library also has a page of its website dedicated to the latest news and public resources relating to the water crisis.

So while the finger-pointing and the foot-dragging continue to play out in local and state governments, and meanwhile, Flint’s population has to make do with bottled water and lingering concerns about their health and wellbeing, the library is offering a quiet kind of advocacy, allowing people to document their daily struggles and their workarounds, as well as the kindnesses and the injustices they are experiencing as a community. Letting people share and preserve their stories is a form of empowerment, and as Flint resident Michael Blaque notes, these stories will someday matter to the city’s youngest inhabitants: “They’re babies now, so they don’t have any idea what’s taken place. When they get a little older, they have the right to know what happened, when it happened, and how it happened.”—Eileen Cunniffe