The Librarians

This morning I was speeding by train across the volcanic western plains heading towards Ararat, my Mum’s hometown 2 ½ hours west of Melbourne, to talk at a Red Cross membership conference about preparedness. I like travelling by train, as it lets me do some work, stare out the window and contemplate, and be exposed to a whole range different people.

My train arrived in Ararat, and I found the local library to prop myself in to work out of, until the conference started, and the librarians were delightful and helpful in helping me find a place to set up. It reminded me what an unsung, underappreciated, community asset libraries are.

My first experience of librarians in emergency management was a course that I was co-teaching at the Emergency Management Institute at Mt Macedon. As we were going around the room doing introductions, a bright middle aged woman stood up and said, “I am the local librarian, I have been handed this (and held up a pager), I have been told I am the Municipal Recovery Manager and I have no idea what to do” She was a sponge for knowledge, and about half a year later she managed the recovery from a high profile event that happened in her municipality. When I had a chance to talk with her afterwards, she was in her element, coping wonderfully, implementing recovery 101. Resourcefulness, flexibility (although with a good eye on process), willingness to learn, and take advice were all attributes that she displayed in managing recovery.

An article I came across in the New York Times after Superstorm Sandy really interested me. It was on the role that local libraries were playing in the recovery, despite being damaged themselves. Here  are a  poignant number of passages from the article.

“Recovery centers had not yet opened. So the library, a natural community center, stepped unto the breach.

“People were just wandering back and forth in shock; they didn’t know what else to do,” Joanne King, the communications director for the Queens library system, said of the first day the bus opened. “When they saw the library bus parked out there, they just burst into tears.”

The 400 Federal Emergency Management Agency fliers that the library staff had on hand ran out within two hours. The books — mostly fiction culled from the library’s regular collection — quickly became popular, too, as people without televisions, Internet or school to attend turned to reading. Matt Allison, the Peninsula branch manager, said children’s books were in especially high demand.

People went for information on jobs, transportation, school relocations and Thanksgiving dinner, for a cup of free coffee, or just to be with other people.

But now it is mostly about books. On Friday, a blue bin held returns. A woman checked Facebook on a computer as she charged her cellphone, and others sat on folding chairs, absorbed in paperbacks. (All fines were forgiven. “People have other things to worry about,” Mr. Allison said.)

Crystal Casillas, 21, was alternating between a werewolf romance and “A Clockwork Orange.” She has been spending nearly every day in the bus, she said, eager to escape a house where there is still no power or heat and where the ceiling seems as if it might collapse”.

As you can see, the libraries became many things to many people, and it is quite natural for them to do so, as they have had to reimage themselves in the digital age (although I think it fascinating that people returned to reading, because there was no power for electronic gadgets). As someone who volunteers with me said at the time, libraries are also seen as neutral and trust worthy, two key qualities for any successful recovery.

It got me thinking about the role of libraries, and more broadly reading and writing. Libraries are a great resource, and creative pursuits are very important in people’s recovery. Some of the things to think about are: most people in the early stages of recovery are still in emergency thinking mode, ie adrenalin fuelled, so their focus is going to be very task oriented. Even when people are out of this adrenalin period, when the cortisol kicks in, for sustaining the “long run” most people’s focus is still on tasks. So they tend not to think about things “for pleasure”. Most people I work with struggle to read all the “official documentation”, they often term it junk mail. So i think any approach to promoting reading would need to be thought through how best to “reactivate” their reading. It might be worth working with some specialists to find some novels that will be helpful for people in recovery.

Maybe book readings could be a good way to get people back into it, to help them reduce the stress, taking them out of their daily challenges. Perhaps books that are quite simple would also be good to offer as well, things like harry potter or other fantasy type books might be a good starting point. It was suggested to me that science fiction is also a good genre.

We know writing is good for recovery, helping make sense, and ascribing meaning to the events. Journals are also an extraordinarily rich data source for research. These are pretty simple things, reading and writing. Two of the 3 Rs. Sometimes it’s the simple things that work.

Back to the librarians. My stay in the library was punctuated by story time, by the local homeless kids having a yelling match, and by people coming and going, doing their thing. IF people think libraries are dead, think again. There was constant activity in this small regional library. The librarians took this all in their stride.

6 thoughts on “The Librarians

  1. I was really struck by your thoughts here John. So true and yet I suspect the role of libraries and librarians are constantly under-recognised and underestimated.


  2. Love this post John. When considering where best to meet communities where they naturally congregate in post-earthquake Canterbury much thought went into considering community centres and other ‘hubs’. Whilst undeniably providing an important role, the numbers of local community members frequenting these community hubs (tens in a week) paled in comparison to the thousand that visited branches of local libraries in a single day (that’s a thousand per neighbourhood branch, not a thousand in total) – prompting a rethink. I definitely agree libraries are a wonderful resource – reading as a leisure activity being such a great tonic for cortisol, for education but also for provision of information, acquiring knowledge, that warm welcoming space, friendly smiles and the sense of community that is so often disrupted.


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