The Role of Libraries in Emergencies

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In my town in NH, we had only 30 inches of snow last weekend.  We were very fortunate and didn’t even lose power.  We were all surprised by this since we lose power so often, but we are a very self-sufficient community and generally well-prepared for emergencies.  Everyone I know in town has a generator including a lot of our patrons.  We remained open most of the day on Friday, and we did a very brisk business of DVDs as well as books for the storm in progress, and when we asked patrons what they would do with five movies if the lights went out, “Start up the generator!” was the typical answer.

We know that many towns did not fare so well in this storm, and so I started to think about the role of libraries when emergencies happen.  We play a much bigger role beyond providing recreational materials for the snowed-in crowd.

  1. Information!  That is what we do, after all, and many patrons who came in or called during the storm wanted to know what we knew about the impending trouble.  What had the Emergency Management Team of the town told us regarding what to expect?  In previous storm situations, we have also used our website as a place to post information for storm preparedness.
  2. Heat, Internet, Water… While most people in my town have generators, there are a few who don’t, but most of us lose internet when the power goes out.  If people in town are without power and the library has those resources up and running, we have a full house.  This is an even more vital service in communities where families don’t have back-up sources of power.
  3. Shelter?  Due to our small size, we don’t generally offer shelter.  That is handled by our elementary school which has much bigger facilities, but the Brownsville Public Library in Texas is hoping to use a FEMA grant to build an emergency shelter that can also double as a permanent planetarium and science center!  Read about their plan! http://www.brownsvilleherald.com/news/local/article_547a820c-56ea-11e2-ac88-0019bb30f31a.html  It sounds brilliant!
  4. The aftermath… After big emergencies like hurricanes, libraries are the go-to place for internet access and help with what steps are next for hard hit communities.  Just as we help patrons access tax forms or other electronic government documents, librarians have an important role in helping people file FEMA and insurance claims, request aid, and even help find missing loved ones. Many communities use their libraries as command central for the American Red Cross or local emergency management in times of need.

So, next time I am wondering if and when we should close the library during a storm, I am also going to be thinking about what we could do if we stayed open.

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