AUSTIN, Texas – Researchers with the University of Texas at Austin, in partnership with Florida State University, have received a $258,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to investigate how small and rural libraries contribute to community viability. The study aims to provide important results that will help public libraries prepare for disasters in their communities. The benefits of this study also have the potential to raise awareness libraries’ capabilities during disaster situations.

To assess the organizational and community qualities that favor resilience, researchers at the Technology and Information Policy Institute will interview library staff regarding their experience of and responses to the disasters and gather secondary data on local broadband availability from services providers, including those providing services to the libraries. They will also undertake community-wide surveys to investigate aspects of resilience, information needs and organizational resources and examine content data from library Facebook and community sites reflecting on the disaster experience.

This research emphasizes the new challenges accompanying a digital information and resource environment in which displaced community members turn to libraries for assistance with information needs on top of other, perhaps more immediate material needs. Coping with dislocation, housing loss, and possibly job losses, communities turn to libraries for information and communication technologies and resources which become central to coordination purposes, social support, and pragmatic resource monitoring.

The research is expected to contribute to improved planning and management tools, as well as an understanding of resilience,  features appropriate to stressed environments alongside a better understanding of the functions of social media in natural disasters. A focal point in the study is the aftermath of natural disasters when libraries were repurposed as disaster relief centers during the record-breaking 2017 hurricane season in the Gulf.

“We are targeting up to 15 small, public libraries on the Texas and Florida Coasts for a series of comparative case studies,” said Dr. Sharon Strover, Director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute at The University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication, “Many of these are underserved and some are rural, sites often neglected in recovery.” An important goal will be to share the research findings in order to help libraries and communities work with each other and address regional problems.

This research contributes to the broader literature on resilience and applies it specifically to small and often rural public libraries. One outcome will be a template for developing strategic and enhanced services within stressed communities. The team will offer recommendations that can assist libraries in preparing for the next set of stresses that reach them, whether they are natural disasters or other types of crises.