Opinion: I didn’t have a library in Burundi. In Connecticut, the library is my refuge

Ndengo Mwilelo, Hartford Courant
·3 min read

Where do you go when disaster strikes your neighborhood? I go to the nearest public library. Libraries are crucial to me. When the world goes down, they provide Wi-Fi, computers, experts on getting information, and a place to gather my thoughts.

I grew up in Burundi; I had no public library. My school did not have a library, either. Textbooks used in classrooms were given by the teachers for in-class use only. We were punished if we ruined them. I was reprimanded once for folding textbook pages. The teacher hit me with a wooden stick and asked my parents to report to school.

I first heard the word “public library” when I moved to New Haven seven years ago. In the summer of 2013, a friend told my family that we were eligible for a free library card. I did not know public libraries existed. The day I first entered the library, it was like entering the arena of possibilities. That library opened the doors to my literacy world.

Here, public libraries are places with endless books and all kinds of resources. Public libraries are essential and safe environments for people to gather, charge devices, get books, work on a computer, or use the printer. They even hold classes. Because of COVID-19, some classes have been suspended, and others are online. However, there are normally English and other literacy classes in many libraries.

Recently, Gov. Ned Lamont announced that the state would support public libraries with $2.6 million in COVID-19 relief funds. The state’s support proves how valuable libraries are to the public.

“Libraries offer critical services for the public, including reliable Wi-Fi, access to computers and laptops, supportive learning materials and resources, and librarians who are trained in helping residents access key services,” the governor said. “Most importantly, libraries provide safe and quiet spaces for people to work and study, which is critical to many people who do not have the environment to do this at home.”

As a college student in the pandemic, I find it challenging to study at home, and I value my public library. I often need to print a paper. I do not have a printer at home. I also need the library to take a break from the computer screen. The library provides endless stacks of books that I can wander through and explore. And there are times when you need a space outside your home to read a book.

After three months of lockdown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, public libraries across the state are now in the stages of reopening. Reopening is not going to be an easy process for both library staff and the public. Reopening means library workers must secure appropriate personal protective equipment, reorganize the library space with less furniture, put distance between computer stations, have hand sanitizer stations and new cleaning procedures, and impose 72-hour materials quarantines. But I will be thrilled when they’re back to full use.

Sociologist Eric Klinenberg, the author of “Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization and the Decline of Civic Life,” also sees the value of public libraries as the country recovers from the pandemic. “This is a moment in our history where we are going to need public spaces like never before,” Klinenberg told Publishers Weekly. “I think this pandemic has magnified the importance of the public library in American community life. There simply is no other place that has such capacity to bring people together.”

This pandemic has taken so much from us. It has taken our freedom to mingle without a care and without a mask. At least we will get our libraries back. Access to the public library will let us reopen our minds and imaginations and fly.

Ndengo Mwilelo is a senior at Central Connecticut State University. She lives in New Haven.

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