#MyLibraryMyStory: Strengthening Communities in Times of Crisis

National Library Week starts today in the US, and this year the American Library Association is asking people how their library makes their community stronger, using the hashtag #MyLibraryMyStory.

instagram-green-4

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.

The Librarians of Christchurch

The Tūranga central library in Christchurch, Aotearoa New Zealand went into lockdown during the terror attacks which occurred in the city centre last Friday.

Librarians onsite looked after the visitors in their care, while the service’s social media team provided emergency communications, as they previously had during the earthquakes which struck the city in 2010 & 2011.

Exterior of Turanga Central Library, Christchurch, New Zealand

Image by Wikipedia user Isaacfreem – used under a CC BY-SA 4.0 licence

A condolence book has been set up on the ground floor of Tūranga, so people can leave messages of support and sympathy for those affected by Friday’s mosque shootings.

Christchurch’s librarians have been tested by crises that no community should face, and proved themselves to be brave, compassionate, effective, and resolute. They are heroes of the information profession. Spare a thought for them this weekend.

Afterlives of Evidence: A Response from @katbhave

New Zealand-based librarian Kat Moody read my post on Afterlives of Evidence, archives, and grief last week. She offers this response, exploring military history, natural disasters, landscape and memory.

20180205_182124
Photograph by Kat Moody

Recently I had the opportunity at work to attend a course on character strengths run by the Mental Health Education Resource Centre. It’s great that these opportunities for healthcare professional development are being opened up to librarians. Last year I went to one of their courses on grief. This was an incredibly valuable session where I learnt a lot; one thing that stood out to me was that we don’t just grieve for people, we also grieve for places and things, particularly in times of change. Sometimes these aspects are inextricably linked.

Because I work in the centre of Christchurch, I am surrounded by sites of memory and sites of mourning. Read more

A quick question about the history of libraries

I’ve done a fair bit of work with libraries over the last few years. Most of it has involved encouraging play of all kinds. I had previously worked with schools and other organisations, but I became convinced of public libraries’ importance after visiting Christchurch in the wake of the 2010 earthquakes. Carolyn Robertson and her team showed, through their actions in that period, that libraries were never more important than in times of grave crisis. When I think about librarianship as a heroic vocation, I think of people like Carolyn, and Penny Carnaby of the National Library of New Zealand, who did their profession proud in a difficult moment.

Carolyn Robertson of Christchurch City Libraries, New Zealand
“We understand the word “library” in the widest possible sense.” – Carolyn Robertson, Christchurch City Libraries

When I was at Auckland Libraries last year, I discovered the Public Library Missions agreed by UNESCO and the international library association IFLA back in 1994:

The following key missions which relate to information, literacy, education and culture should be at the core of public library services:

  • creating and strengthening reading habits in children at an early age;
  • supporting both individual and self conducted education as well as formal education at all levels;
  • providing opportunities for personal creative development;
  • stimulating the imagination and creativity of children and young people;
  • promoting awareness of cultural heritage, appreciation of the arts,
  • scientific achievements and innovations;
  • providing access to cultural expressions of all performing arts;
  • fostering inter-cultural dialogue and favouring cultural diversity;
  • supporting the oral tradition;
  • ensuring access for citizens to all sorts of community information;
  • providing adequate information services to local enterprises, associations and interest groups;
  • facilitating the development of information and computer literacy skills;
  • supporting and participating in literacy activities and programmes for all age groups, and initiating such activities if necessary.

I think this is an incredibly strong mandate which gives librarians clear freedom to engage in all kinds of play, performance, technological and cultural activity. The missions have been around for twenty years, and yet so many library conferences and professional discussions still revolve around debating what libraries should or should not be doing in the 21st century; so many public discussions about libraries reveal that people still think of them largely as “shelfy”, book-storing institutions.

Part of my eclectic scholarly career was spent as an intellectual historian, so these are the questions that occur to me:

What happened in librarianship in the 1980s/1990s to lay the ground for such a radical, positive, and future-proofed global mission statement?

Why didn’t the missions gain more traction?

What lessons could we learn for today from the history of these missions, and the process that led to their writing?

If you have any answers to my questions, contact me via the comments on this site, or at my Twitter account @drmattfinch.

I’ve written about applying the Public Library Missions to play activities in the library here, and also overthought the nature of librarianship here.

Two of my favourite discussions of librarianship – from actual librarians! – come from Adrienne Hannan on “Strategic Librarianship” and Tracie Mauro on “Wonder-based library programmes”.