"The word 'understand' … means 'to stand in the midst of.'"
— Andrea Elliott, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival, and Hope in an American City."
Arlington Public Library Director Diane Kresh.
Arlington Reads hosted Andrea Elliott in late November and since her visit, I have been thinking a lot about what “to understand” means to me in my role as director of Arlington Public Library. At a minimum, “to understand” means actively listening to others and putting one’s ego and preferences aside.
Easy, right? What’s harder — for me, anyway — is looking for and finding common cause in unexpected places and hearing from people I might not agree with. It is tempting to cut oneself off from deeper relationships based on biases and assumptions, be they political, cultural or historical in nature. And we must try to set them aside if we are to live in community with one another.
Over the past year, how has Arlington Public Library tried to understand the Arlington community better?
The pandemic made more visible inequities in income, housing, education, and technology for many of our residents, inequities we sought to address through programs and services.
For example, we hosted six Kindergarten kickoff events in which we joined with parents and educators to prepare their children for Kindergarten. More than 400 children and families from across the County participated, with waitlists suggesting significant interest and a role for libraries in learning readiness.
Our "Arlingtown" play community at Central Library — think re-purposed Amazon boxes, designed and decorated to look like the streets and neighborhoods of Arlington — hosts nearly 2,500 of our youngest readers per month. It is a joy for our staff to see what a little paper, scissors, paint and glue can do to spark the imagination of children.
We designed a community gifting project and collected gently used (and sometimes new) items for a free holiday shopping experience. We launched the Teleconnect Space at Columbia Pike Library to provide a free, private room for telehealth, social service appointments, job and college interviews.
We fully refreshed the collections and the spaces of the library inside the Detention Center and hosted programs featuring Arlington Reads authors. The free indoor and outdoor WiFi hot spots were used 1,600,000 times, nearly double from the year before. For the first time, we joined a nationwide effort to celebrate "Welcoming Week," announced by a proclamation by Board Chair Katie Cristol, which offered activities to bring together neighbors of all backgrounds.
How have we begun to train ourselves to listen to the stories around us and to increase our understanding of others?
There are many ways we come together as a community. By joining our weekly storytimes, signing up for a sewing class, attending a U.S. Citizenship or foreign language or English conversation class, participating in our Community Quilt project or joining our Summer and Winter Reading programs. You could also submit materials for the REAL Archives Project, or el Re-Encuentro de Arlington Latinos, designed to illustrate the rich, vibrant history of the Latino community in Arlington County.
We have stood "in the midst" of challenging social issues with our signature author talk program Arlington Reads. We have been doing this since 2006 with our first book "Digging to America" by Anne Tyler in which we had conversations on adoption, immigration and what it means to be "other," an "outsider."
So, the question remains, are we there yet?
During our event with Andrea Elliott, she said that to understand "does not mean that we have reached an ultimate truth. Rather it means that we have experienced enough of something new and something formerly unseen to be provoked, humbled, awakened, or even changed by it."
Not a destination, a journey.
As we close this year and anticipate the next, all of us at Arlington Public Library leave you with a promise:
We will keep paying attention. We will keep showing up. We will keep listening. And we will continue to stand in the midst of others.
Will you join us?
Diane KreshDirector, Arlington Public Library