There are countless ways in which libraries, by providing access to information, knowledge, and culture on the community’s own terms, strengthen neighbourhoods, institutions, businesses, schools, towns, cities, states, and entire nations. But you never realise just how much a library strengthens your community until disaster strikes.
In Ferguson, Missouri, it was the library’s acclaimed response to a period of civil unrest which made headlines around the world. When local schools closed, Scott Bonner and his team made a safe space for children in the community – they even carried on their lessons, thanks to the efforts of teachers who volunteered their time.
In Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand, the libraries made sterling efforts in the wake of a series of devastating earthquakes; more recently, the same city faced crisis once again after a horrific shooting, and once more, librarians found their spaces pressed into service, providing safety and refuge for the community.
When crisis strikes, organisations can sometimes flounder: unexpected threats can cause fuzzy thinking, emotional responses, or injudicious implementation of rehearsed responses to disaster. In the worst case scenarios, ill-considered efforts to mitigate or resolve a disaster can exacerbate the situation – most famously with the reactor incident at Three Mile Island.
Yet crises also offer possibilities to learn, adapt, and renew the institution’s mission and value for the community it serves. In the case of Ferguson, Christchurch, and many other communities facing different forms of crisis, libraries have demonstrated exactly how they make their communities stronger, even when “business as usual” has broken down.
That might mean offering storytimes to comfort the children of shocked and traumatised families.
Leaving wifi on in abandoned buildings to enable people to obtain information, or communicate with their loved ones.
Protecting valued heritage collections from the effects of disaster, or documenting and acquiring new materials to record the crisis itself for posterity.
Libraries have even been known to offer guides to others affected by a disaster in how to preserve or restore their damaged belongings, as the State Library of Queensland has done when floods strike their state.
As part of the #UKLibchat discussion on social media this month, we explored some of the ways in which libraries deal with disaster, risk, and impending crisis. You can see some highlights and further reading gathered in this Twitter moment.
When disaster strikes, a community’s resilience is tested. Libraries, as information institutions serving a wide range of needs in communities large and small, public and professional, general and specialised, are powerful actors offering safety, continuity, and comfort in the times of gravest crisis.
No library service seeks to be tested in the way those of cities like Christchurch and Ferguson have been, but in such moments, hidden aspects of libraries’ social role are made starkly manifest, offering lessons for us all.
That’s why #MyLibraryMyStory is dedicated to information professionals who have been tested by crisis, and who stood strong for their community.