“New adventures in disasterology”: Learning from crisis with Christchurch Libraries

Katherine Moody is a librarian in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand. She and I submitted a piece for the US Public Libraries Magazine at the end of March 2019, and it appears in the current (April/May 2020) issue. 

You can read that text, “Even In The Worst-Case Scenario”, as a PDF download here – but it would be an understatement to say that a lot has changed in the world since we wrote it! 

Worst Case Scenario

To keep the conversation moving forward, Katherine and I had a short discussion about libraries’ experience of crisis over the past year.

In terms of our interest in coping with crises and turbulent situations, in understanding the part libraries have to play in these huge upsets: what has been learned?

So much has happened, both personally and professionally, and is continuing to happen, and taking a breath to look back is almost overwhelming.

I think we need to have the mindset – and the strategy – that we need to be prepared to face anything. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about some Crowded House lyrics recently: ‘I’ve been locked out / I’ve been locked in / but I always seem to come back again’.

In the past 14 months, I have been locked down in my library, Tūranga, during the Christchurch shootings, and at the moment I’m in lockdown, locked out of my library. I want to go back again, obviously because I miss everybody, but also because I believe we can make a difference. I’m more convinced than ever that libraries have a role in disastrous and catastrophic events.

During the shootings, our library network provided a safe physical space for people, but now the opposite is true: if we mixed our bubbles, so to speak, the results could be awful. And as we plan to reopen we have to be so careful.

Over the past few weeks we have focussed on our virtual efforts, which libraries all around the world are doing. I wonder which of these activities might become business-as-usual in future?

It’s like your discussion with Martin Kristoffer Bråthen over in Norway – we have to find the right balance of physical and digital.

Martin was concerned about a few things. One was that libraries’ long-term digital offer couldn’t just be as a middleman between the community and content. There had to be some value added, and a two-way relationship between the user and the institution. “Sprinkle some library on it,” as he said.

Karanteket web page - Norwegian digital library offer

I think big learnings from this time are that libraries most certainly have a role to play, we need to be able to adapt for and listen to communities who are going through traumatic events, we need to be willing to try things out and experiment, we need to have our Business Continuity Plans (and all other plans) up to date and have them handy in a variety of formats.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the idea of resilience as a creative capacity: imagining the worlds you might inhabit and the problems you might face, then beginning to think through how you could address them.

Ah yes – the dreaded ‘R’ word. Resilience fascinates me. It’s become such a loaded term recently, possibly misinterpreted and misused. Dangerous Meredith has written a great blog about this issue, which really resonated with me. I’ve been really ill, but I’ve worked so hard to recover and I am so much more resilient now. I don’t know how I would have handled a crisis like this if it had happened last year or the year before.

Resilience has also been a loaded term for Cantabrians, as evidenced by the excellent blogger Moata Tamaira. Post-earthquake those who lived in Christchurch and the wider Canterbury region were praised for their resilience – and we are – but it’s a lot to live up to and live with.

These terms are surely loaded and they get used in highly politicised ways. I like Eleanor Murray’s line: resilient entities don’t bounce back, they bounce forward. You learn and evolve from what you encounter. Who we are after a serious illness is often not quite who we were before.

That’s a great way to look at it. I’ve certainly bounced forward!

Continuity planning is about risk and mitigation, but to get to that point you need to have identified your blind spots, looked for the uncertainties in your present and the future. You can only deal with risks that you’ve identified, the issues you know about and can calculate. What’s more, if you think in terms of risk and mitigation, you never think in terms of using a crisis as an opportunity to grow or change.

All of this work can be even harder in times of turbulence and deep uncertainty. So I guess I’ve been drawn towards new foresight tools in the year since we wrote our article.

The scale of what we’re facing now is so daunting, global in its scope and profound in its impact, that I’ve been trying out these tools in order to get a grip on what is going on.

One of the places I went for inspiration is the 2005 collection What is a Disaster?: New Answers to Old Questions. It’s really highlighted for me the ways in which even our idea of a crisis is socially constructed. 

Disasterologists – and who knew that was what you called them – ask questions like: at what point does a routine emergency cross the threshold into disaster? 

Yes, and also disasters can be exacerbated by humans. For example, as I understand it, a small bush fire can help rejuvenate stuff, but bush fires, plus habitation, plus climate change equal disaster for the land and for people. In Christchurch, the earthquake impacted very differently on sparsely populated Kaikōura compared to the built-up areas; so how we live shapes whether dramatic events become truly disastrous.

In the same way, the pandemic is exposing the weakness of a system built on efficiency and just-in-time delivery, favouring cost-effectiveness over resilience. And, speaking of these things, we are on the cusp of the very greatest human-made disaster, aren’t we? One of the things I took away from a recent Oxford scenario planning webinar was the notion that the current crisis, awful as it is, is pretty mild compared to what might be coming down the track.

That’s so scary, but I’m glad people are thinking about it – and I hope people will listen too.

What is a Disaster? sounds like a really interesting book – I must look it up on interloan when that service is available again.

Strategy books

Ever the librarian, aren’t you!

Well of course!

Does it cover issues like, can disasters be opportunities and can they be fait accompli?

I think one of the interesting issues from an information professional’s perspective here is about the flow of information and when you recognise yourself to be in a disaster. The reliably excellent Tim Harford had a piece in the Financial Times about this – seeing the news coming out of China at the start of the year, talking to epidemiologists, and yet still failing to adjust to the crisis which you can see coming. So I wonder how that plays to the idea of disaster as a fait accompli.

As for disaster as opportunity – how difficult is that to think through right now? The human cost is going to be so great. There’ll be grief: not just a great deal of it, but also strangled or distorted by weird circumstances like quarantine. Goodbyes said at a distance. Delays – once again of information flow! – as you try to keep in touch with loved ones elsewhere, care for them remotely, check on them remotely.

At the same time, I think you have to look at every moment like this and say, How can I help? What will I do? And how will our actions shape the long term? How do we find our way to the best consequences?

Yes – there seems to always be a huge desire to help in disaster. I’m thinking about how people started knitting for Australian wildlife after the recent (what does recent even mean any more?) bushfires, keen to play their part and, perhaps, to feel as if they are doing something. But perhaps we need to think more about helping as being a long game?

Taking the long view will help people move out of that reactive crisis mode and think more strategically. That includes anticipating future uncertainties.

Disaster is defined by one thinker, Claude Gilbert, as “the passage to a state of uncertainty”. The late Enrico Quarantelli, a leading sociologist in this field, said we define what a disaster is intuitively. You’ve lived and worked through some hugely challenging incidents – what’s your take on this question, based on lived experience?

The idea of a passage to uncertainty is really interesting, as it can vary in lengths. For Covid-19 we had a few weeks to see things developing, for a hurricane you might have a day or two to prepare, for an earthquake you might have a few seconds, or not. They’re all horrible in their own way.

I remember clambering down the stairs on the morning of September 4th (Earthquake 1) and thinking, well we just have to deal with this now, but I don’t think the full reality hit until I saw an RNZAF Hercules fly over. I think perhaps sometimes you don’t always truly realise what you’ve been through until afterwards.

Again, it’s really about when you get information, and when you get to make sense of it. It reminds me of Rüdiger Dornbusch’s law: crises take longer than you expect to arrive — then happen much faster than you think.

Obviously you have an awareness at the time, but you’re running on adrenaline, you’re surviving – because you have to, and then later you think, woah – that was huge. I wonder if the body also has an instinct – that fight or flight response, focussing on basic needs.

Right. And I guess there’s a Maslow’s hierarchy kind of thing going on here, that we have to find our feet and get our basic needs met in the immediate aftermath of something like this, and then figure out where we go next and some of the higher-order problems.

There’s definitely a hierarchy. Thinking back to after the February earthquake, initially saving lives was paramount, and making sure people had shelter and water, and gradually you move to reopening and starting to get stuff fixed, and then planning for the city

Another point raised by the disasterologists is the question of “equity in disaster”, noting that events of these kinds affect us very differently depending on our social situation. They can even exacerbate existing disparities in, for example, healthcare. 

What’s been your experience of this? The public library is often seen as a space which strives to be welcoming for all, however imperfectly; does it provide some kind of “equity in disaster”?

I think it depends on the disaster. For example, right now we are focussed on the digital space and the digital divide gets highlighted. National initiatives like Skinny (formerly Spark) Jump (providing modems to families who aren’t online) are great, and our mutual friend Wendy Horne is doing great work in this space, but they can only go so far.

Exterior of Turanga Central Library, Christchurch, New Zealand

With the physical library being closed I worry about our homeless community – where are they going? What information are they accessing? Of course, organisations such as Christchurch City Mission are working hard in this space, but a number of people’s access to PCs, warmth, a comfy chair has gone. And all those that use the library for social connection, that must be very hard.

I wasn’t working in public libraries at the time of the February earthquake, but from my research the situation was a little different. As libraries reopened, people did have somewhere to go to be with other people and to use computers for all sorts of tasks – sorting out post earthquake issues became more possible for more people. Once the temporary central libraries opened these became something of a haven for the homeless community, particularly as other support agencies were having their own issues.

So libraries can certainly work towards ‘equity in disaster’ but physical and digital barriers are there.

I think that broadly speaking, libraries have done a pretty sound job of reacting to the challenges of 2020. A number of them probably should have closed sooner for the safety of their staff, but in terms of adapting their services, rolling out online provision, and so on, people have done a good job being responsive to the fast-changing situation. Justin Hoenke in Wellington wrote very nicely about this.

The real question is what lies over the horizon. How can we foresee, and plan for, the circumstances that await us in the mid-to-long term – through the far side of this pandemic and beyond?

Do you have any thoughts on what awaits, or what needs to be done?

Will business as usual ever be the same again? We need to brace ourselves for a whole new world, thinking about community needs, our place in our parent organisations – be they be local government or tertiary institutions, and ensuring we can tell people stories about our value so we can ensure we have a seat at the table.

You’ve talked elsewhere about the Arrows of Time method for starting strategic conversations about the future and I feel like that could be a good framework for this question.

Screenshot 2018-12-31 at 13.16.04

I’m definitely in favour of starting new conversations: what can we see coming? What do we hope, what do we fear? Where are our blind spots? What are we not preparing for, and why? That’s what the Arrows do.

The public are still going to come to libraries for a whole range of reasons, some familiar, some maybe less so, but how do we meet those needs? Do we do more things at a distance? What difficult conversations are we going to have to have about budgets? Can we evolve with less? What are going to be the channels to use for advocacy?

I think we’ll need to justify our outputs more than ever, and while this can feel threatening, could it also be liberating, giving us permission to find new ways to do things?

I was thinking about the need to capture and preserve what communities are going through right now – in much the same way that Penny Carnaby at the National Library of New Zealand, among others, acted to record Christchurch’s experience of the earthquakes. The great Australian librarian Kyla Stephan has been doing fine work capturing the desolation of the Gold Coast under lockdown – somehow both eerie and mundane.

I’m loving Kyla’s photos. And at Christchurch City Libraries, we’ve been asking for people to upload images onto our Discovery Wall – something that is already doing great work recording Christchurch in disaster and a city that doesn’t exist any more, a real palimpsest.

In Shannon Mattern’s excellent essay “A City is Not A Computer”, she asks: “What forms of cultural memory don’t fit on library shelves or city servers? Performative knowledge like dance, ritual, cooking sports. Ambient data like shadows, wind, and rust.” What does a statement like that mean in a disaster context?

I guess this is an issue that comes up in collecting quite a lot. Even with contemporary collecting we choose what to collect, what to contribute. We can’t record the silence, we can’t record the feeling of anxiety in the pit of the stomach. But given how easy it is now to record video, and given that we are very aware that we’re going through something big, collecting all those memes and funny videos may give an impression of how we reacted.

I wonder if this is where the arts come in – what written, visual and performed art will broadcast this time into the future?

We’ve spoken a lot about information and how it shapes our experience of disaster in this conversation. What work needs to be done – what new approaches need to be developed – in order to really preserve some of what we’re experiencing now for future generations?

I’m going to disagree with Indiana Jones and ask ‘do things belong in museums’? GLAM institutions have been recording history for centuries, but with questions about decolonisation and repatriation, we are seeing that there are other ways to preserve history and knowledge. So as a start I’d say that perhaps the sector needs to redouble its efforts at working with communities to preserve their stories in appropriate, respectful and truly accessible ways.

I know some great minds in the museum world are thinking about this already. For example, Sacha Coward and Te Papa’s Puawai Cairns are both thinking about museums and the GLAM sector being more engaging and people centred.

Right – I think it’s going to be interesting on the far side of the pandemic, seeing what the sector evolves into for better or worse. And in the current moment I sense a tension – a lot of online stuff is just about broadcasting to audiences. Putting up a video for people to watch can reduce people once more to spectators instead of participants. There’s a similar discussion going on around patient centred care in health at the moment; does some of that get thrown out the window when you go into crisis mode to cope with the pandemic?

I feel like GLAM institutions are already working on the question of participation, so I hope this current crisis doesn’t send that work backwards, and rather helps people to come at issues of participation from new angles.

I wonder how we can record lessons and learnings, as well as stories and artefacts more generically? Can we help future generations learn, so we can avoid some of the errors outlined in Tim Harford’s article?

We’re going to be someone else’s cautionary tale…or role model!…a generation from now, whatever happens this moment will pass and become a memory, a history, a case study.

I wonder where we will be next year?

*Kat runs off and Googles “How to become a disasterologist?”*

Read more about Christchurch Libraries’ experience of earthquake recovery here.

One thought on ““New adventures in disasterology”: Learning from crisis with Christchurch Libraries

  • This is such an interesting interview. Thanks!
    As a long time user of public libraries, I have been wondering how they’ve been surviving and how they will emerge and adapt in a post-pandemic world. I have been wondering too about the folks who really rely on libraries – you mention the homeless above, alongside people who use libraries to keep social isolation at bay – and how they are faring.

    (And, Katherine, I’m so glad that you found my blog to be of some relevance.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s