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This Tennessee library can offer more services — when it pays as much as McDonald’s

Kai Ryssdal and Richard Cunningham Oct 3, 2022
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"We have people who come to the library who need help with housing or help with food," says Jennifer Pearson, director of the Marshall County Memorial Library System. Brandon Bell/Getty Images

This Tennessee library can offer more services — when it pays as much as McDonald’s

Kai Ryssdal and Richard Cunningham Oct 3, 2022
Heard on:
"We have people who come to the library who need help with housing or help with food," says Jennifer Pearson, director of the Marshall County Memorial Library System. Brandon Bell/Getty Images
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The role of the public library within a community is expanding. Across the country, public libraries are providing more community and social services, including child care, digital literacy assistance and small business and entrepreneurship courses.

And more libraries are hiring social workers to connect people who need food, housing and health care with state agencies or nonprofits that can provide what they need. But even as public libraries assume more responsibility in their communities, many are underfunded.

“We have enough folks to do what we’ve been doing for the past few years,” said Jennifer Pearson, director of the Marshall County Memorial Library System in Lewisburg, Tennessee. “We don’t have enough people to add new things. So we can’t add new programming.”

“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke to Pearson about the changing role of the public library. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Ryssdal: So, it has been a while. The last time we had you on was sort of early days of the pandemic. We were still trying to figure out our way. And you said you eventually want the library to look like what it used to look like. And I guess now, here we are — it’s not over, but we’re on the backend, I think — does the library look normal?

Jennifer Pearson: Yeah, mostly. So we’ve been back open 100% for over a year now. And I would say, with our programming, we’re going gangbusters with that — especially with our young kids’ story time. Now, still not as much foot traffic as pre-COVID, but, you know, I don’t think that’s unexpected. I know my patterns have changed and everyone’s has changed. And so, you know, we’re not that concerned about that. We’d like to see it get better. But it’s not unexpected.

Ryssdal: Yeah. It’s funny, you know, you think we’re back to normal, and then you realize your own patterns. You’re like, “No, we’re clearly not.” Talk to me about programming. Do you have enough people to do the programming? You’re not a business-business, but you’re running an organization that needs labor and all those things.

Pearson: That’s right. And that’s a great question for the environment I’m in right now. So I would say yes and no. We have enough folks to do what we’ve been doing for the past few years. We don’t have enough people to add new things, so we can’t add new programming. I’ve got an old ambulance sitting in the back parking lot that should be a mobile library — we can’t staff that. And we also — which is great — we got a new building for our branch library. Can’t really staff that that well either.

Ryssdal: It’s tough. You’re feeling the tight labor market.

Pearson: We are. And it’s also, for us, a little difficult to get staffing. We can’t really pay as much as, say, McDonald’s.

Ryssdal: The first time we talked, you made a point of saying, “Look, libraries aren’t just books. They are so many other things — whether it’s helping with virtual schooling, or digital literacy, or all of these things that we need now in a modern society that has moved away from just going to the library and checking out a book.” Can you still do that stuff?

Pearson: For the most part, we can. What we’re seeing now though, that we’re not able to really get our arms around, is the social services needs of our community. We have people who come to the library who need help with housing or help with food and, being a small community, we just — you know — we don’t have those.

Ryssdal: That’s so interesting. It’s not interesting. It’s actually horrible. But the conundrum you’re in is really curious, because you are information specialists. You are not social workers, you are not social services specialists. And I imagine you’re in something of a bind.

Pearson: We are. And, you know, larger urban libraries, a lot of them have hired social workers to be on staff there. But I have been working with some folks who have a grant that seems promising to do sort of virtual social services in areas like mine. So I’m hopeful that will be something in the near to midterm future that we’ll be able to take advantage of.

Ryssdal: Do you anticipate getting back to the way things were say in late 2019? Are those days just gone for libraries, do you think?

Pearson: Ah, I think some things are gone and changed. But I wouldn’t say they’re gone-gone. I would say this is, you know, like everyone says, the new normal.

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