Q&A with Chera Kowalski of the Free Library of Philadelphia

In her 2017 TEDMED Talk, Chera Kowalski shared what it was like to work at the McPherson Square Library, situated in Philadelphia’s “Needle Park,” where she and other staff members played the dual roles of librarian and lifesaver in a community stricken by the opioid crisis. We talked with Chera to learn more about her perspective and her courageous work.

TEDMED: Why did you want to become a librarian? Have those reasons evolved over the years?

Chera Kowalski: In the beginning, I was drawn to the research aspect of librarianship because I was constantly doing research as an undergrad. However, I ended up volunteering with the Free Library because I didn’t want to close myself off from exploring the public librarianship side of the field. As I saw more and more of what a public library is, I wanted to stay because I realized I wanted to work with the public, with the community.

Also, as I have reflected more on my career choice, I realized growing up my mother was always helping people out even when in the midst of her own hardships. She was always connecting people to resources. In the end, I think it was witnessing that which really directed me towards public librarianship. I may not have realized it when I first started on my path to becoming a librarian, but today I definitely do.

TM: Most people wouldn’t think of a public library as being a critical local resource in the opioid epidemic, but Philadelphia’s McPherson Square branch and other libraries across the country are serving as just that. Are there other types of community resources that you think have undiscovered or underused potential in terms of being able to meet the needs of their communities?

CK: Yes, of course there are other types of community resources that have undiscovered or underused potential in meeting needs of their communities. It is important to always explore the landscape of your community because it is more likely than not there are many resources sitting undiscovered or underused. As a public librarian, I am always seeking out resources of all kinds because we can’t offer everything the community needs, but we can connect the community to other resources supporting the particular need. And many public libraries, including the Free Library of Philadelphia, also collaborate and partner with other organizations as well to ensure the needs and wants of the community are being met.

TM: Do you work with other libraries around the country who are facing similar challenges within their communities?

CK: Since the story of our efforts at McPherson Square hit the media, other libraries across the country have reached out to us to ask  how to get their library administration and/or the community to understand the need for overdose reversal training, how to engage the community around the topic of the opioid and overdose epidemic, and so on. I have presented on panels with other public library professionals to educate and engage more people in our field on the issue because the opioid epidemic is affecting communities of all kinds throughout the country and the library needs to be one of the resources communities can turn to for support.

TM: What would you say to critics and skeptics who might say things such as: providing the overdose-reversing drug naloxone at public libraries enables opioid users, or that you shouldn’t administer it in front of children?

CK: I keep saying it is a tool, a skill right up there with CPR. The thing that holds people back from recognizing this, to me, is stigma, misinformation, disinformation. This is why I have made the choice to discuss not just what we do at McPherson Square Library, but also share my personal story. Sometimes it is easier for people to connect to a story than to facts, and the personal story sometimes has the potential to open the doors to those facts and change minds.

At McPherson, the library and the park are always full of kids, and so when people unfortunately overdose in the library or just outside, kids are seeing this, experiencing this trauma, and we did not want kids or anyone to see someone die, especially when there is something available to save lives. The kids and the residents of Kensington witness overdoses constantly because Kensington is the epicenter of Philadelphia’s epidemic. They are experiencing this trauma over and over again, and if naloxone wasn’t available many more deaths would be the result.

TM: What do you think the future of the opioid crisis looks like, and as someone working in the midst of it, do you see an end in sight?

CK: Even though progress is being made, it is not nearly enough, soon enough. The issue is so complex, so complicated, so massive, constantly changing, it’s daunting. We are so behind on what needs to be done and what’s holding us back is, once more, the stigma, the misinformation, the disinformation. There is so much being done on the ground level, the frontlines, but bureaucracy, the concern for profit, the concern for keeping a political seat, just the refusal to educate one’s self are slowing down the critical parts of policy change, of equitable access to treatment, and more. But with all that said, I do have hope because I know there a lot of people willing to put in the effort, the exhaustion, the hard work to change the course of this crisis.

TM: What was the TEDMED experience like for you?

CK: TEDMED was definitely not my usual scene, but I connected to it because everyone there wants to solve problems, challenges, and do so collaboratively. It was such a positive, encouraging experience, I felt reenergized and motivated. The experience also pushed me to reflect on where I want my professional and personal path to lead, which is why I ended up moving into a new position with the Free Library of Philadelphia as the Assistant to the Chief of Staff. It was a heartbreaking, difficult decision, but in the end I had to see the bigger picture. I am still connected to McPherson Square Library and the Kensington community. I visit frequently and I am still finding professional and personal ways to continue to support the library branch and the community.