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At Long Last, The Milwaukee Public Library’s Betty Brinn Children’s Room Is Set To Reopen
For this columnist and his daughter, it is going to mean a whole lot to be back in that extraordinary room again.
It was our weekly tradition, before the pandemic. Every Wednesday morning, my daughter and I would walk to our neighborhood stop and take the bus downtown to the Central Library.
We’d get off on Wisconsin Avenue and make our way up the stairs, into one of the city’s most beautiful historic buildings, under the rotunda dome, and walk through the library toward the Betty Brinn Children’s Room.
That room became a very special place for us. It was there that we’d attend the weekly story time and play group for children her age, and she’d leave with new books to read and songs to sing and joy in her heart. She made a special connection with the Central Library’s wonderful youth librarians and would make friends with other toddlers who’d be there each week. Soon enough, she’d walk in and be greeted with a chorus of hello’s, like a regular at her favorite restaurant, on a first-name basis with everyone there.
She loved it. “Library Day” became a weekly special occasion. And it was a time I cherished, too. It served as a place where she could spend time with other children her age, and begin to learn from those youth librarians who served as her first teachers. As a stay-at-home parent, I worried about my daughter missing the opportunity to be with other kids and learn from other adults like she might in a child care environment, but going to the library helped quiet those concerns. Those story time groups also gave moms and dads like me a place to get together and talk about the joys and challenges of parenthood, and it gave us a healthy, positive, enriching environment to bring our children each week. It meant so much.
The Betty Brinn Children’s Room itself is a true gem for the city. It’s warm and inviting and expansive and unique. It’s free and welcoming to all. Set apart from the rest of the library, you walk into the room past oversized recreations of the Wild Things from “Where The Wild Things Are” on the walls, and onto the room’s one-of-a-kind floor designed by acclaimed Wisconsin children’s author and illustrator Lois Ehlert, who passed away earlier this year. There’s a lighthouse that kids can climb, and all kinds of toys and legos and puppets and an endless number of books for kids to read and use the space for hours on end.
The last time my daughter and I were there together was March 11, 2020 — the day everything changed. We took the bus there, she played in a ball pit, and we sang songs in close quarters with a dozen other families. The room hasn’t been open since.
Milwaukee’s libraries have been an important part of the story that’s unfolded over the course of the 20 months that have followed. They quickly found ways to continue safely providing services when things shut down — children’s story time went virtual almost immediately and was a key part of our early-pandemic routine — and librarians soon became the “utility players in the city,” said Eileen Force Cahill, director of community relations and engagement for the Milwaukee Public Library.
“Standing up vaccine clinics, staffing covid call centers, doing contact tracing. Within the city, the library is kind of unique because it is, for the lack of a better word, kind of the only retail operation. When our libraries were closing, we were faced with the possibility of laying staff off, and so the fact that we could transfer folks to the health department to do that work was good for the city and good for our employees, too. And who better to do contact tracing than library staff? They’re born researchers.”
Libraries were also key to essential civic participation necessary in 2020, through elections in the spring and fall, and for providing help to enhance the Census Count in the city. If you live in Milwaukee, there’s a good chance you dropped off your ballot at a drop box outside of a public library.
“Libraries are really anchor institutions within their neighborhoods,” she said. “People know the staff. Things like the census, things like registering to vote, questions about voting, access to voting, the library has a very prominent role in that because we can help. We’re like the center of democracy.”
As we began to emerge from the depths of the winter covid spike in Wisconsin and vaccines paved the way to a safer reopening in spring, we started going back to visit our favorite places around the city — restaurants, parks, museums, Bucks games, etc. — that felt like a return to normalcy and a needed reunion after such a long time away.
Soon enough, libraries would open for browsing and children’s sections at neighborhood branches would reopen. But the Betty Brinn Children’s Room at the Central Library remained closed.
For me, taking my daughter back to that room has been one of the things I’ve most looked forward to as places have reopened. When people would ask what you first wanted to do when this was “over,” outside of visiting family and friends, taking my daughter to the library was one of the first things I mentioned. And now, with the pandemic shifting into a different phase, even if it’s not ending entirely, we have mostly figured out how to make things work in a safe and responsible manner. But at this one place, the reopening I’ve been watching for more than any other had yet to happen. It is the only room in the entire Milwaukee Public Library system that is not open.
Throughout the pandemic, I’ve been supportive of the majority of the health protocols taken to limit the spread of the virus and have appreciated the care with which institutions like the library have approached reopening. But knowing how important this particular room is to families like mine and many others, and considering how many other places across the city have figured out a way to safely open their doors, I wanted to learn more about the steps being taken to reopen it after such a long time closed.
When I spoke with Force Cahill about this, the explanation was a reasonable one, as I’d expected. Covid protocols, staffing shortages, turnover in the youth services department, and the ongoing threat of the pandemic kept the room closed for longer than anticipated, and like so many aspects of city government, its decisions were tied to the complex funding puzzle of local government in Wisconsin. And since libraries are inherently interactive, especially for children, there’s a heightened level of concern and care needed to be taken to ensure a safe environment.
But the reopening of the Betty Brinn Children’s Room is finally scheduled to happen on Nov. 15.
“We just alerted our staff that that’s what we’re working toward,” said Force Cahill. “Now, people understand that anything can change on a dime. But given the last few months, it seems like we're in a much better place with respect to covid. And all city employees are required to be vaccinated and show proof of that by Oct. 29, so that is another factor that plays in for us. Because children under the age of 12 can’t be vaccinated yet, that was a concern for some of our staff.”
So many times over the past 20 months, my daughter has asked me when we can go back to the library. And so many times, I’ve done my best to give her a hopeful honest answer about how now isn’t the time, and how people need to be safe and healthy before we can go through those doors once again. “Can we go when the germs are gone?” she’d ask. “Yes, of course,” I’d promise.
I cannot wait for the next time she asks, so that I can finally give her a different answer, and tell her that we are going to the Betty Brinn Children’s Room at the Central Library, our favorite place in the city, on Nov. 15 — 615 days after our last visit.
So much has been taken from children during this pandemic, and it is going to mean a whole lot to be able to take her back to that room again.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.