Rural Libraries and Disasters

Investigating resiliency in the digital environment

Research teams at the University of Texas at Austin and Florida State University are investigating how small and often rural libraries contribute to community viability in times of crisis. Guided by experts at UT-Austin (Dr. Sharon Strover) and Florida State University (Dr. Marcia Mardis), the research identifies factors important in library resiliency and the role of the library during the aftermath of natural disasters. Libraries are integral community sites with facilities and services that can be quickly adapted to addressing community need. Specifically, this project focuses on learning from the experiences of libraries re-purposed as disaster relief centers during the record-breaking 2017 (Harvey) and 2018 (Michael) hurricane seasons in the Gulf, and during fire season in Western regions.

This research emphasizes there are new challenges that accompany the digital information and resource environment of library services during a catastrophe. Displaced community members turn to libraries for assistance with information needs on top of other, perhaps more immediate, material needs. Librarians have shared their experiences that illustrate how community members turn to libraries for help when faced with dislocation, housing loss, and job loss. Libraries often become the only spaces where information and communication technologies and resources are available after a disaster. The project thus illuminates the ways that these resources become central to coordination purposes, social support, and pragmatic resource monitoring in local environments during and after disaster strikes.

Libraries often face their own unique challenges during crises: disasters may cause internal damage, impact staff attrition, or threaten collections. This project also identifies ways that libraries balance their own losses and threats while advancing the healing process or meeting the economic and workforce revitalization needs of their communities.

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.

Dana Braccia

Executive Director, Texas Library Association

We are targeting small, public libraries on the Texas and Florida Coasts for a series of case studies. Many of these are underserved and some are rural. The Texas libraries were particularly affected by flooding, while in this most recent cycle of disasters, the Florida libraries were more affected by wind damage. However, beyond library damage, entire communities experienced devastation. In addition to suffering internal damage, the libraries were faced with the challenges of helping communities to cope with facets and phases of the disaster. Resilience therefore has a reciprocal feature and refers to the libraries themselves as well as their local communities.

This research uses the concept of resilience in order to understand how libraries both prepare for and deal with disaster environments. Resilience is a term applied to numerous phenomena, but as a non-profit, public institution, the library’s organizational context suggests framing resilience in terms of how libraries:

  • Adapt to threats or disturbances
  • Refocus priorities and capacities
  • Learn from disasters
  • Change their preparedness and responses to disasters

Common organizational responses to stresses – from natural disasters to economic strain – include downsizing, reorganizing, and forming alliances; however, libraries are unique, public institutions operating within constrained circumstances. They work with limited budgets and uneven access to technical assistance, even as they are imbued with public trust and expectations. Individual libraries’ resilience capabilities can vary tremendously. In consideration of this, our research accounts for variation in resilience among the small, often rural, public libraries facing disaster circumstances. It speaks to the IMLS interest in “developing the knowledge and competencies in libraries that can identify opportunities and address community needs.”

Intended Outcomes

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. This research will also contribute improved planning and management tools, as well as an understanding of resilience features appropriate to stressed environments. Stay tuned to this page for developments regarding the deliverable outcomes of this endeavor. 


The Researchers

Sharon Strover (Principal Investigator)
Marcia Mardis (Principal Invesitgator)
Srivalli Dorasetty
Denise Gomez
Zoe Leonarczyk
Cameron Lindsey
Martin Riedl
Emily Rubin
Curtis Tenney


Co-Constructing Disaster Response: Researchers and Practitioners Collaborating for Resilience in Small and Rural Libraries

Marcia Mardis – Associate Professor, College of Communication & Information at Florida State University

Sharon Strover – Professor, University of Texas at Austin

Faye Jones – Professor, Florida State University

Researchers from Florida and Texas reported their experiences co-constructing narratives of disaster planning, response, and recovery in the wake of the last 5 years’ regional hurricanes. This session, rich in verbatim data, photos, and other documentation, detailed the process that researchers used to engage as partners in understanding disaster experiences and critically evaluating public librarians’ roles in community resiliency. The session also included opportunities for audience members to share their own experiences through storytelling and discussion.

To download the presentation, click here.

The American Library Association (ALA) is the oldest and largest library association in the world. Founded on October 6, 1876 during the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the mission of ALA is “to provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”

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