The evidence is undeniable. Articles about recent crises show that libraries play a critical role in the response and recovery of communities in crisis not only in New Jersey, but also New York, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Missouri, Colorado, Michigan, California, Oregon, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Washington, North Carolina, Iowa, Haiti, Chile, Australia, Norway, and more (Librarians and Libraries Respond to Disasters: Bibliography on Library Roles in Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery).
Throughout these articles, libraries are called safe havens, ports in the storm, sanctuaries, churches of knowledge, and gates to information. There is good reason for this. They are arguably the most approachable of all governmental agencies, at once authoritative and welcoming. No matter where you are, you know what a library is for and what it can provide. And it isn’t just books.
Last week I attended a community resiliency workshop given by the New Jersey State Library. The librarians spoke of people coming to the libraries after Hurricane Sandy, shellshocked from having lost their homes, their pets, and their businesses. The library staff sat with hundreds of people, holding their hands and comforting them as they poured out their grief and fears. Even staff who usually had no contact with patrons came into the reading rooms and sitting areas just to listen and provide comfort.
For weeks, the libraries extended their hours and services, connecting patrons to resources and tools. They provided activities for children so parents could focus on filling out FEMA forms. And when people could not come to the libraries, the libraries went to them. They sent staff and materials in the form of mobile libraries to shelters and neighborhoods. They even walked door to door to let community members know about services and events available at the libraries. All in addition to having to resolve the effects on their own homes and families.
This is a pattern repeated again and again in libraries around the country and the world. It is a fascinating phenomenon that is not advertised or promoted typically. It is an inherent part of the culture of libraries and our communities. The public expects libraries to be there for them and libraries do all they can to provide for the needs of the public no matter the circumstances. If leveraged effectively through planning, preparedness, and collaboration, this culture can be key to not just the recovery of individuals but the resiliency of an entire community.
Myhrvold comments that we live in an age where food is abundant and that a lack of access is caused by systems and mechanisms that create barriers. This is equally true of information. We often hear that we live in the Information Age due to the increase in access to technology that can improve access to information. New means of sharing, obtaining, and packaging information are available every day...but not to everyone. Rather than refined cuisine, he could be referring to the high cost of technology that causes information to "stay(s) in this funny place where the elite practitioners of the very highest forms remain really expensive".
Although "we" live in an Information Age, there are huge disparities in many communities that cause barriers: small library and community budgets and staffs, limited access to the internet and computers or other devices, and a lack of both information literacy and technology proficiency, to name a few. This isn't an earth shatteringly profound concept, of course, but it does have a profound effect on those who experience information inequality. Those of us in the various library and information science professions are constantly trying to improve that situation.
A third year MLIS student conducting fieldwork with NLM, NN/LM NER, and Massachusetts Libraries.