Turning the pages at Grand Rapids Public Library

Young, Black and motivated, Jessica Anne Bratt is pushing the institution’s revival.
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Photo by David Sparks

People who know Jessica Anne Bratt describe her as something of a library wunderkind — a 34-year-old who was promoted last year to become the Grand Rapids Public Library’s first Black assistant director.

She’s written widely published book reviews. She’s served on an alphabet soup’s worth of committees and boards. Library Journal named her to a “mover and shaker” list in 2016. Her boss said she’ll probably have his job one day.

But she’s coming of age in a changing world for libraries. Think about the last time you wanted to know how big Texas was, or the last time you thought about skimming through “The Great Gatsby.” That’s all a tap on your smartphone away — what do you need a library for, anyway?

This is where Bratt, a library evangelist if ever there was one, really shines. Like most other people in the profession nowadays, she’s happy to admit you don’t need her to show you where the 20-pound World Atlas is (remember those?).

But the world is changing, she said, and it needs libraries more than ever.

“We’re, in some ways, the palaces for the people,” Bratt said. “There have been dwindling opportunities for quality experiences for families for a very long time. There have been dwindling resources that communities can access for a really long time. There’s an increased digital presence that not everyone has full, month-to-month, day-to-day, hour-to-hour access to.”

Think of the typical American community decades ago: built around bedrock institutions like a local church or school, thriving on less expensive access to leisure. Bratt argues those community spaces and opportunities, over the years, have begun to fade.

“We’re more segregated than ever. And it’s not just race — it’s ideologies, it’s in how we view neighbors or what a neighbor is,” Bratt said. “There’s more of that distance and that separation … the idea of the library still has that model of, you can come in and be heard. But you can also learn things too, and contribute, too.”

This is the language in which the modern field speaks — about a mission that stretches far beyond the library’s front steps. And it’s running parallel to huge changes in how the modern library works, as the internet gobbles up more and more of the world that used to live almost exclusively at the library.

Take DigiBridge, a program founded by Bratt earlier in her tenure at GRPL. It partners the library with local schools to help get kids library cards, library access and library technology — bringing more patrons through the doors and giving the community another way to connect with reading and learning.

So, as the world the library is living in changes, it’s changing, too. Of course, library defenders are quick to point out there’s still plenty to actually find at the library — like endless books and movies and historical archives and more.

Rachel Anderson is the president of the Grand Rapids Public Library Board of Commissioners. She’s been around libraries long enough to remember actual, hold-it-in-your-hands card catalogs; she even recalls helping convert a Cyrillic-language set to a digital system back in her younger years.

“The traditional view of the library is as a repository — a place you stick things and you can come and look at the things and the information will be there,” Anderson said. “But libraries have always been — and I think we’re much more intentional about it now — a sort of community center. A place where everybody is welcome, and they can get what they need. And we want to be able to help them find what they need.”

John McNaughton is head of Grand Rapids Public Library. He’s quick to point out that Bratt didn’t get the job because of her skin color — her insight is exactly what the library needs as it keeps growing into a new era.

“In the library environment these days, you really need to be looking forward as much as humanly possible, trying to adapt as much as possible,” he said. “But with Jessica, I instantly saw in her that she is constantly thinking about where to go next.”

Bratt’s identity is notable in a city like Grand Rapids. The city was roiled by 2020 protests after the murder of George Floyd — just like everywhere else — but it also has its own, unique racist history that’s simmered for more than a century. In 1925, the Ku Klux Klan paraded through the city; in 1967, the city was rocked by rioting stoked by decades of racism. The city’s police department has launched reforms in recent years to help bridge divides with local residents — especially in the Black community.

Today’s moment, in which Bratt takes her new job, is the product of that past, and one of which she is keenly aware. Bratt said her grandfather was born in the 1880s — and that Ruby Bridges, the young Black girl who famously led the way in desegregating a Jim Crow-era school, is only 68 years old.

Bratt was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. Both her parents were Chicago Public Schools teachers who worked hard to support her interests and her young education. That was valuable during the late 1980s and 1990s, when Bratt recalls gang violence surging, and as the city’s worst racist impulses had yet to fade. The family pediatrician, she said, was one of the first in the area who regularly accepted Black patients.

But the library was a “neutral pillar” in the middle of it all, Bratt remembers. She grew up there, eventually working as a library page and meeting her mentors. One of them was Dorothy Evans — a celebrated Black librarian who had a 59-year career in Chicago’s libraries. It’s easy to see how Bratt, young and Black on Chicago’s South Side, learned to discover who she was — and who she wanted to be — between the stacks.

Bratt went on to study music education in college before teaching in Chicago Public Schools. But she said she always knew she wanted to be a librarian. She graduated from Indiana University with her master’s in library science in 2012. By the end of the year, she was a youth services librarian at Grand Rapids Public Library, where she has been a rising star ever since — moving on to regional manager, then youth services manager, then community engagement coordinator and now assistant director, all by the age of 33.

“The only way you’re going to combat fear and ignorance is by providing spaces for people to be able to come together,” Bratt said. “They always say that, when astronauts go into space, they stop seeing borders, and they start seeing that we’re all one. We are all in this place as one.

“And so I feel like that’s the beauty of equity, diversity and inclusion. It kind of breaks down that fear and that ignorance to be like, we only have one Earth, and we only have one life and trying to make the best of that I think is where I land with changing the power structure — in a good way.”

This story can be found in the March/April 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here

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