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News & Opinion

Libraries in the Wake of Disaster

by on November 14, 2012

In the aftermath of disaster, we seek refuge in the places that are familiar to us. For many people dealing with the tragic devastation left in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the public library has become just such a place.

Our heart goes out to the people who are impacted by this terrible natural disaster. It is deeply moving to see the images of places like the Plainsboro (NJ) Public Library packed with community members looking for electrical outlets and internet access. Or the Princeton (NJ) Public Library, which acts as a warming station for its community, providing a safe place to recharge batteries and bodies alike. The story repeats itself throughout the hardest-hit areas of the storm.

While the full extent of damage to the communities hit by Sandy is unknown, libraries in each town and city are pulling together to provide not only that place of refuge but also to give community members some sense of normalcy.

Those of us who have been through another natural disaster watch the devastation with empathetic eyes. In June 2008, my city, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was devastated by massive flooding. Ten square miles of the city was underwater for nearly a week. We lost our main library but the city itself lost so much more—the flood destroyed thousands of homes and businesses and left the center of our community in shambles. Of the 125,000 people who live in my city, one in four was impacted directly by the flood.

Immediately following the flood, residents flocked to the library’s only open location for access to a computer, wifi, power outlets, and a helping hand. During this, as with any disaster, our library became an emergency shelter and community center; library staff became relief assistance experts.

In January of 2011, FEMA changed its policy to allow libraries to be considered essential community organizations. This shift made libraries eligible for temporary relocation assistance during major disasters and emergencies. Because of this change, libraries like mine are able to meet the needs of the public while going through the rebuilding process.

Libraries are uniquely equipped to deal with the impact of disasters in our communities. Library staff is accustomed to working with the public, often in times of need. Librarians know how to gather information and disseminate it to the right people. Libraries have resources like common space and public computers.

It’s been more than four years since the flood that now defines my city. In that time we have seen a community come together to rebuild better than before. Our library is still in a temporary location, but in less than a year we will finally open the doors on a new 94,000 square foot building in the heart of our downtown.

If we have learned anything in the wake of disaster it is that public libraries unite the community and provide essential help in a time of great fear and uncertainty. It will take time for the affected communities to recover from Sandy but recovery will happen. And more likely than not, the community’s recovery will be assisted by the staff and volunteers of the public library.

The New Jersey Library Association has established the Rebuilding New Jersey’s Libraries Fund to support libraries that lost materials and equipment. Learn more at www.njla.org.



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