When a disaster or crisis hits a community, the public library often serves as a safe haven. Libraries provide a place of comfort, direction, normalcy, and resources to help guide recovery efforts for the people they serve. Library staff frequently serve at their local Emergency Operations Centers during and after a disaster. While we always hope for the best, it’s good to know that in case of a disaster, your library is a cornerstone of recovery.
Florida is no stranger to hurricanes, but the last several years have been particularly brutal. When Hurricane Irma moved across the state in September 2017, public libraries quickly jumped into action to support their local community members. Some libraries brought in therapy dogs to help children cope with their post-storm fears. Many libraries became distribution centers for food, water, and other supplies. Library staff came into work, despite being without power themselves, to hold programs for kids who had been pent up in their homes without power for too long.
The response to Hurricane Michael, which struck the Florida Panhandle in October 2018, highlighted how pivotal libraries are in a disaster. In rural Mossy Pond, 150 residents rode out the Category 5 storm in the public library.
The library was built as a shelter, complete with a full kitchen, showers, and generators. In the aftermath of the storm, library staff cooked meals for those staying in the library and worked diligently to help take care of their fellow community members. Library staff also trained with FEMA so they could assist patrons with filling out disaster relief paperwork. In Bay County, several library buildings were unusable because of damage. The Director was able to secure a bookmobile to serve as a temporary library where one of the library buildings was damaged. Since then, the Bay County Library Foundation has launched the Free Library on Wheels (FLOW) that provides free books to students across the county.
This type of community response by library staff isn’t just a Florida phenomenon.
In 2014, when schools were canceled in Ferguson, Missouri because of riots in the city, the public library became a national beacon of hope. In partnership with local educators, staff kept the library open and provided programs for children. The passion and commitment from staff led to the programs jumping from 40 attendees to over 200 in less than a week. Volunteers came from all over the country and donated supplies poured in to help the library meet the local needs of their residents during a time of unrest.
During the 2018 wildfire season in California, public libraries provided refuge to their residents. The smoke was so thick that people were struggling with low air quality and it became a matter of public health. Several libraries stayed open late to provide a space with clean air to those who did not have a safe place to go. Despite the crisis, library staff were adamant about providing services to their patrons. Libraries also became partners with other agencies to provide post-disaster assistance — for example, the Malibu branch of the Los Angeles County Library System made additional laptops and computers available for those who needed them.
Library staff respond to the needs of their communities on a regular basis, not just when there’s a community-wide crisis. They are the unsung heroes of our towns, and they help individuals daily who are experiencing their own personal challenges. Whether someone is experiencing the loss of a job, working through a medical diagnosis, or struggling with a chemical dependency, libraries are stepping up to meet those needs. As Scott Bonner, Ferguson Library Director, said, “During difficult times, the library is a quiet oasis where we can catch our breath, learn, and think about what to do next.”