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In July, wildfires swept through the Saskatchewan province in Canada, forcing more than 13,000 people to evacuate their homes. The Saskatoon Public Library opened its doors to these evacuees, and staff members stepped up their efforts to help the evacuees communicate with their family and friends. Staffers also let people from outside of Saskatoon check out books from the library and access other services.
"This is what a public library is all about," said Carol Cooler, the director of libraries and CEO at the Saskatoon Public Library in a press statement. "We're a community space; we're here for everyone, and our services and resources are free of charge."
Saskatoon Public Library's support is just one of many examples of public libraries supporting disaster preparedness and relief. Here are a few more public libraries that have helped in times of need.
The library is a natural place for community members to obtain information on disaster preparedness. The American Library Association put together this helpful annotated bibliography to help you provide support for disaster preparation and response in your community.
You can even tailor disaster prep information to the specifics of your community and geographic regions. For example, the San Francisco Public Library's website has a page that curates local services and resources on preparing for and dealing with the aftermath of an earthquake.
A "disaster" doesn't necessarily have to mean a fire, earthquake, hurricane, or other natural occurrence. After the shooting of Michael Brown by the local police, the city of Ferguson, Missouri erupted in chaos, violence, and unrest. Library director Scott Bonner, who had only worked at the Ferguson Municipal Library for a month, had a very difficult decision. Many businesses had closed and even the local schools had delayed starting school. Bonner decided to keep the library open and reassured the community that the library would stay open as a safe space and resource for the citizens of Ferguson.
The staff at Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library found itself in a similar situation after the funeral service for Freddie Gray, an African-American man who died in police custody. The library stayed open despite the protests, but locked the doors; staff offered to escort anybody out of the building's side doors. The decision to stay open was natural, said the library's director of communication. "We wanted to have a safe place that people could come in," she told Library Journal.
The Rockaways, in the borough of Queens, was one of the hardest hit areas during Hurricane Sandy. Despite many branches being damaged, the Queens Public Library stepped up services to help its community. A mobile library was set up with Wi-Fi and computer access, staffed by people trained in social services, disaster relief, healthcare services, job services, and more. The Far Rockaway Library, which wasn't as damaged as other libraries, distributed emergency food, water, and supplies and stayed open seven days a week.
The Queens Library stressed the importance of keeping as many branches open as possible. The libraries were where people could find a safe place with heat, electricity, and water because many homes were still without those services.
When Laurence Copel moved to New Orleans in 2010, the city was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. The school system had one of the worst high school dropout rates in the nation and a high level of crime per capita. She saw a tremendous need for literacy and outreach services, particularly to the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, where the aftereffects of Katrina were the most devastating.
She was told that the public library had no budget for outreach, so she took matters into her own hands and founded the Lower Ninth Ward Street Library. The library holds more than 5,000 books and is open to the community every Saturday.
Since the New Orleans Public Library's bookmobile was no longer operational, Copel starting driving around a tricycle (and then later, a book bus) with free books for children and teens of all ages. She also started a community garden that holds events with food and literacy programs. Copel has won a number of awards for her service to the City of New Orleans.
When people have to flee their homes because they are threatened by disaster, they can feel quite disconnected and stressed. The library can alleviate some of this stress by being a place where people can connect to services, find distractions, and take steps toward recovery.
When the Fort Collins, Colorado area was threatened by wildfires in the summer of 2012, the Poudre River Public Library District set up a temporary library at an evacuation center. The library included 300 donated and library-owned books as well as laptops so evacuees could check on the status of their communities, file insurance claims, and communicate with family members. The district's librarians worked in shifts to provide services, including movies for kids.
These are just a few examples of how libraries serve their communities in times of disaster. Heard of other libraries doing disaster recovery or preparedness work? Share with us in the comments.
At a temporary housing area / Direct Relief / CC BY-NC-ND
PPL Post Sandy / Princeton Public Library / CC BY-NC
Enoch Pratt Free Library / Meredith Kahn / CC BY-NC
Ginny Mies is a Content Curator at TechSoup Global.
This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International License.
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