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Communities Matter – It’s National Library Week in Boston, and in your town too.

In the aftermath of a national tragedy—such as the bombing of the Boston Marathon—it is common for people to seek out community. Even as the news media frantically looks for those to blame and as politicians seek to be the first to vow that those responsible will be brought to justice many people tend to have a more immediate and personal reaction, they ask: “what can I do to help?”

Empathy in the days following a tragedy is encouraging to behold, especially as this selfless outpouring is frequently diminished when we are told to return to our normal lives. Alas, it seems that one event that will surely be lost in the next several news cycles—not that it would have received terribly much coverage to begin with—is the fact that this week (April 14-20, 2013) is actually National Library Week.

And this year’s theme? Communities Matter.

And they do, don’t they? That is a fact that will be attested to repeatedly over the coming days as images of candlelight vigils alongside pictures of family and friends embracing, slowly replace the current shaky images of the bomb blasts. The desire to be with and support a community, after an event such as what took place in Boston, can lead people to reach out as best they can; for example—amidst the coverage that appeared on The Huffington Post—was a brief news item noting that: “Across the country, running shops – along with their Facebook and Twitter accounts – became de facto hubs for questions and condolences.”

While reaching out to “running shops” may have some logic to it, and I do not mention this to be crass, it still seems as though there is more that we can do together and for each other if we truly feel that our communities matter. Reaching out to running shops almost seems to have a confused quality to it, as if people are unsure of where else to find community at a time like this. The blasts at the Boston Marathon involved attacking runners and their supporters, but this was not an attack on the idea of running marathons, it was—however—an attack on a community.

There is something inspiringly bold about National Library Week taking as its theme “Communities Matter,”  (granted this theme was chosen months ago) for it seems to simultaneously recognize how disparate we are and what still binds us together. Within a small town or a large city people may hold different political beliefs, different social beliefs, may attend different schools, different places of worship (or no place of worship), but we all may share a few libraries.

In 21st century America it seems that there are always fewer and fewer spaces that genuinely belong to the whole community, places which we support as a community, areas where we can gather as a community without being expected to pray a certain way or shop for certain items, places where we can have access to informational resources simply by virtue of being in that community. These are places that don’t require much belief other than a belief in the value of the library to the community, and libraries already return the feeling, they know that “communities matter.”

As people look for something to do, some way that they can contribute, we will doubtless see encouragements to donate to various causes (as well—very sadly—of various scams), and while this is not without merit, a donation to the Red Cross does not fulfill your ethical obligation to those around you and to your community. And while a donation to the Red Cross or to a fund set-up to help the victims is worthwhile, we must be able to focus on building and sustaining our own communities even as we assist Boston in rebuilding its community.

In the wake of a tragedy it is always heartening to see people coming out to support the victims and each other, indeed many a politician and news personality even tamps down their vitriol until a culprit is discovered to vilify. But, as positive as it is, these momentary outpourings of affection in the days following horrific events are no substitute for the long and frequently difficult work involved in building and sustaining strong communities that recognize that many people are struggling every day.

Moments where the mayhem is on the front page and blaring from every channel force a reaction, but there is work that needs to be done even when such imagery does not abound. And there will be work that needs to be done after the news media returns to stories of celebrity weight gain and politicians return to gridlock.

So as we mull and mourn let us remind ourselves that Communities Matter, let us fortify our commitment to the sites that work to build and strengthen these communities every day and let us recognize that if we genuinely value our communities we need to help sustain them. When a tragedy occurs a community needs real shared spaces that they can come to as a group, lest we find ourselves turning to running stores searching for solidarity. A store can sell a product, but a community is not something you can buy, it is something that you must be a part of building if you wish to have it.

The desire to make a donation at a moment such as this is understandable, but as we do so we should reflect on whether this will be a momentary donation that helps bolster some large organization, or whether it will help rebuild the effected community.

Assuming, of course, that you agree that Communities Matter: perhaps if you’re going to make a donation to Boston, than maybe an organization to add to your list is the Boston Public Library.

Communities matter.

It’s National Library Week in Boston, and in your town too.


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

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