Besides the physicality of the library and its resources, libraries as social infrastructure is another important contribution of libraries to community resiliency. During and after disasters, libraries helped to foster civic life and maintain a sense of place in their communities. They operated as spaces for people to come together and socialize, as well as share common stories about their experiences during these times of disaster. This was most evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Librarians shared how patrons missed the socialization available at the library. Being able to share in social life without the expectation of payment means that the library is a unique space for socializing, particularly in small towns.
Lastly, the responsiveness of librarians to community was important for community resiliency. Libraries were tasked with nimbly meeting the changing needs of their communities during and after disasters, and librarians often adapted their physical spaces, services, and programming based on what they observed within their communities. Libraries with established communication avenues with their patrons were more effectively able to respond during disasters and keep their patrons up to speed.
Taken together, these factors of community resiliency that the library cultivated are a unique contribution of libraries that should be acknowledged, celebrated, and incorporated into disaster mitigation and planning efforts at the local level and supported at the state level. Yet ensuring the resiliency of the community is only possible if the library itself is resilient. Libraries that had adequate resources thrived and weathered disasters more effectively than libraries without similar forms of support. Support for library resiliency came from their local government, from a countywide library system, from informal relationships with other libraries, and from state library organizations. The libraries’ ability to adapt was equally crucial for the resiliency of the library as it was for the resiliency of the community. Librarians quickly pivoted their roles to serve their communities. They proactively protected libraries’ physical resources from damage and worked to quickly reopen – both physically and digitally – after disasters and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The librarians interviewed for this project faced many challenges that threatened their resiliency. From personal tragedies resulting from a disaster, to apathetic government workers, to cultural resistance to preventative measures, the resiliency of librarians is even more striking in the face of these challenges. Many of the librarians regretted their lack of formal disaster training and wished they were more able to prepare in the event of disasters. Although most of the librarians had experience from previous disasters, the lack of formalized training for librarians specifically to plan, respond, and recover from disasters meant that many of the librarians were making it up as they went along and filling in gaps themselves.
To support community resiliency, libraries need to be recognized by their local governments and systematically incorporated into disaster mitigation plans. That training would enable librarians to respond even more efficiently to disasters, like chemical plant explosions and COVID-19, that offer no time to prepare, as well as disasters, like hurricanes, that come with some forewarning. Training should also go hand-in-hand with mental support resources for librarians. By fulfilling a coordinating role and by working directly with community members, librarians need support in order to continue supporting their communities. The resiliency of librarians is crucial to the resiliency of the library, which is vital to the resiliency of the community as disasters have become a way of life.
IMLS Log Number: RE-96-18-0127-18; Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program