In celebration of Ontario Public Library week, we’re exploring the ways that libraries support their communities during crises in a two-part blog series. Part one Ontario Public Library Week: Libraries and COVID-19 examined how libraries have adapted to changes in public service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, we’ll look at some examples of libraries serving as “second responders” during disasters through history.  

Given their unique range of expertise and resources, libraries often step in to provide relief and support for their communities when disaster strikes. Their critical services in the aftermath of hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and other disasters are even recognized in American emergency legislation. In 2010, American libraries were officially granted status as an essential community service by the Federal Emergency Management Agency1. More and more, libraries are recognized as “second responders”, helping their communities to get back on their feet after the first responders have managed the immediate crisis. They share crucial information, provide assistance with filling out forms, offer advice and guidance and act as a community hub with programming, Wi-Fi and access to computers.2 

In our own community, Brampton Library has been collaborating with the City of Brampton’s Youth and Seniors’ Task Forces. With our expertise in programming and community engagement, we can help to inform the task forces’ work in the wake of COVID-19 related closures. 

Beyond legislation and government collaborations, libraries have been a place of hope, refuge and support during many recent large-scale disasters.

2005 - Hurricane Katrina

Following one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record3, libraries were filled with people requiring information, access to communications and devices to fill out government forms. The library organized and shared information, volunteered, donated materials, listened and provided much needed comfort to residents impacted by the hurricane.4 

2008 - Global Economic Crisis

Following the crash of international financial markets, people around the world lost their jobs, savings, homes, and assets. To help customers transition to new careers, the library offered digital literacy and business building programs.5

2012 - Superstorm Sandy, New York State  

After another devastating hurricane that damaged houses and infrastructure, 

libraries in New Jersey and Connecticut used their resources to help community members contact loved ones, provide electricity for charging devices, and show movies in their spaces for families to enjoy a momentary escape. New Jersey’s Roxbury Public Library extended their operating hours while the South Orange Public Library converted its space to a primary evacuation center.6 

2015 - Aliso Canyon Gas Leak, San Fernando Valley

When methane gas was discovered leaking from a nearby storage facility, Los Angeles Public Library’s Porter Ranch branch jumped into action by installing industrial air filters to remain open for their customers. Library staff gathered and distributed information and offered yoga and meditation classes to support residents’ mental health during a stressful time.7 

Time and again, libraries extend their services to help their community with all the resources available to them. When times are tough, the library emerges as a dependable source of knowledge and hope. To quote Albert Einstein, “The only thing that you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.” Once you’re there, the library can help you with the rest! 

Join us on social media @BramptonLibrary for more Ontario Public Library Week celebrations. We’re giving kudos to libraries that have recently done amazing, creative work for their communities. Has your library gone above and beyond to provide services? Let us know and give your library a shoutout. 

Sources:

  1. The Role of Public Libraries in Disasters
  2. Our Towns: When Libraries Are 'Second Responders' 
  3. Hurricane Katrina | Damage, Deaths, Aftermath, & Facts
  4. Public libraries post-Hurricane Katrina: a pilot study 
  5. Librarians Rise to the Challenge as Second Responders 
  6. Public libraries can (literally) serve as a shelter from the storm 
  7. Providing Calm in the Chaos

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