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The role of libraries in times of crisis

13 October 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: John Vincent

This post is part of a series of blogs we are publishing about the role of libraries in times of crisis. Other blogs in the series include Welcoming Refugees to the UK (and to Libraries) and Anti-Bullying Week - what can libraries do?.

Libraries support their communities in many different ways. Whether through times of humanitarian or political crisis, civil unrest or even the personal crises that affect all of us, libraries can be places of comfort, safety, reconciliation and hope. 

Ivy Noelle Weir describes what happened when an ice stormed knocked out power to a swathe of people and by chance the library kept power and heat:

“Soon, we were crowded with people who might never have otherwise set foot in the library. As the days without power or heat dragged on, we saw people who previously may never have interacted crowding together, laughing and talking as they charged their phones and checked their email. I ran around town to whatever shops were open to collect power strips, extension cords, and a few urns of coffee and hot cocoa. I worked with local disaster relief agencies to direct people to warm shelters and relayed information on when power was going to be restored. We served our community. ”

From the courageous decision of Ferguson Municipal Library to remain open in the wake of the riots there to the urgent effort at Baghdad National Library to digitise and protect their collections in the face of ISIL, the media abounds with stories of the fortitude of libraries in the face of humanitarian and civil crises.

Crisis is a natural part of the human experience. In this blog, we explore the reasons why so many people turn to their library during times of crisis and the different types of support which our libraries can offer. In so doing, we offer a conceptual model of the different roles of libraries during times of crisis on a scale from the personal to the global.

Ferguson protests

Caption: Protests in Ferguson, Missouri

The significance of the library

When people’s daily lives are disrupted, they tend to look for places of sanctuary and sense. Places in which they can feel safe and from whose vantage point they can understand the things that are happening around them. 

As trusted civic institutions at the heart of their community, designed around the fundamental principle of equality of access to information and freedom of expression, libraries hold a unique role in supporting us through times of crisis. 

Libraries can help us be more resilient and better-prepared, whether personally or as a community. As physical and digital spaces, they can provide shelter, infrastructure, security and connectivity during periods of crisis. They can also play a significant symbolic role as places of hope, reconciliation, safety and privacy. 

Personal crises

All human lives are marked by periods of crisis. Whether these crises are linked to specific events such as bereavement or losing your job or to a longer-term situation such as depression or incidents of poor mental health, the impact on the individual can be immense.

In 2013, the public library service in Surrey, a region of South East England won the CILIP Libraries Change Lives Award for their project ‘Domestic abuse – how Surrey libraries can help’. 

The project focused on developing a range of support services, information resources and staff training, including information through specialised book stock and signposting to other services, events for residents experiencing domestic abuse include poetry sessions run with a local survivors support group and self-esteem workshops, a domestic abuse survivors reading group, increased awareness of the services offered to those experiencing or who have experienced domestic abuse and the professionals working with them which forged links between the library service with the police, borough and district councils, Crimestoppers and the Surrey and Sussex Probation Service, 

The range and impact of these activities highlight the importance of the multi-faceted role of libraries in supporting individuals experiencing personal crises. This role combines the ‘traditional’ function of providing mediated access to appropriate and quality-assured information with a softer emotional role and a newer role as an interface to other local support services. 

Providing this type of support places both personal and professional pressure on library staff. As any librarian working in frontline services, particularly in public libraries, will know the universally accessible nature of their services and buildings commonly brings them into contact with people who are experiencing significant personal, financial, emotional and mental health issues. 

Supporting these library users and meeting their needs with respect and due regard to equality is a core competence of library staff, and one which frequently goes unrecognised.  

Community crises

Communities respond to crises in different ways. Sometimes they come together to support and protect each other, at other times the crisis sets different factions at odds with each other, which can spill over into conflict. 

Evidence suggests that libraries are able to support their communities before, during and after a period of crisis, whether by acting as a focal point, sharing information, coordinating relief or supporting long-term reconciliation. 

Throughout 2004 and 2005, communities across the Gulf Coast of America were battered by a series of storms and hurricanes of unprecedented severity. Perhaps the best known was Hurricane Katrina, which caused an estimated $60bn of damage, but it was the severity and duration of the procession of storms which placed the affected communities under severe stress. 

In their paper The 2004 and 2005 Gulf Cost Hurricanes: Evolving roles and lessons learned for public libraries, the authors note:

“The public libraries of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas filled a varied and important list of roles in their communities, as they prepared for coming storms, endured the storms, and worked to reassemble their communities after the storms. ”

In the immediate aftermath of the initial hurricanes, the public library network along the Gulf Coast provided a vital first-line digital infrastructure, supporting communities to get online and carry out key activities including locating missing relatives, accessing federal aid and obtaining up-to-date information. 

As in Baltimore and Ferguson, library staff voluntarily took on this emergency relief role. Speaking in the wake of the rioting in Baltimore, librarian Melanie Townsend Diggs commented, 

“This is our life every day. We are public servants every day. At the end of the day, what happened on Monday [during the height of the unrest] was service oriented,” says Diggs. “We were giving the best service to our customers and our community that we can give. We do that every day. ”

Hurricane Katrina

Caption: 'New Orleans, LA, Sept. 14, 2005 -- Large parts of New Orleans remain flooded two weeks after several levees failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.'

National crises

Nations and nation-states experience crises much as communities do. 

When a country is tested by a sudden and immediate crisis such as an earthquake, the library network can provide much-needed infrastructure – enabling people to share and find information in a reliable way. When the crisis is longer-term and arises from multiple causes such as conflict, inequality or poverty, the role of libraries as trusted civic institutions can be key in promoting cohesion, tolerance, understanding and reconciliation. 

In post-Apartheid South Africa, the 1995 Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act established the basis of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) which was tasked with identifying and addressing human rights violations on all sides during the previous era. 

Where Apartheid had clearly represented a national crisis, there was a need for South African society as a whole both to understand its origins and to work towards resolutions where possible. In this, as in so many other areas of civic life, South Africa’s public and academic libraries had a key role to play. In his essay South African Public Libraries after Apartheid , author Robin Illsley notes:

“For most of their history, public libraries in South Africa were created for, and used by, a white minority. Most of the materials in the libraries were in the two official languages, English and Afrikaans. This bias in acquisitions has had lasting effects on South Africans perception of public libraries, and in the collections that those libraries contain. 

In 1993, as the racist Apartheid regime was nearing its end, nine other indigenous languages became official. The inclusion of resources in indigenous languages in South African public libraries is an essential step in reconciliation and cultural preservation”

No civic institution can be truly apolitical, but the core mission of libraries to present a neutral space in which multiple viewpoints and narratives can be examined, compared and understood is central to their role in helping nations learn from their history. As playwright Jane Taylor noted in her review of the work of the TRC;

“The TRC is unquestionably a monumental process, the consequences of which will take years to unravel. For all its pervasive weight, however, it infiltrates our culture asymmetrically, unevenly across multiple sectors. 

Its place in small rural communities, for example, when it establishes itself in a local church hall, and absorbs substantial numbers of the population, is very different from its situation in large urban centres, where its presence is marginalised by other social and economic activities”

Nelson Mandela

Caption: Nelson Mandela, Deputy President of the African National Congress of South Africa, addresses the Special Committee Against Apartheid in the General Assembly Hall. 22/Jun/1990.

Global crises

The world population today finds itself confronted with a range of large-scale and systemic issues. These include the worldwide failure of the financial community to mitigate the risk inherent in highly leveraged markets, which precipitated what is often referred to as a ‘global financial crisis’ between 2004 and 2008. 

Writing in Information, Society and Justice, Mohammed Nassar Al-Suqri, Salim Saeed Al-Kindi and Abdullah Hamood Al-Sami characterise the root cause of the global financial crisis as a failure of information management;

“In an international survey of Chief Financial Officers (Towers Perrin, 2008), 62% of respondents attributed the financial crisis to poor risk management by financial institutions. Fundamental to risk management is information: argued that “if corporate leaders, portfolio managers and regulators want to make good risk based decisions, they need to have the right data, and they need to have the right framework to be able to analyze the data.”

Alongside this economic crisis is a broader set of environmental trends which are collectively commonly referred to as a ‘global environmental crisis’. The 2000 UNEP Global Environmental Outlook report highlighted two recurring themes in this crisis – imbalances in trade and productivity and the pace of economic development outstripping ecological governance.

This definition broadly categorises the environmental crisis in two areas: crises of inequality and crises of overconsumption. These crises are further compounded by other global trends – poverty and the unequal distribution of resources and the ongoing conflict between nations and ideologies around the world. 

As a worldwide community that is committed to freedom of expression and access to information, the library and information profession have a central role to play both in helping people to understand the nature and causes of these global crises and in supporting them to develop strategies to mitigate their effects.

Stock Market

Caption:São Paulo Stock Exchange


While it is the high-profile incidents that draw media attention – the support libraries can offer during civic unrest, riots or war – of equal importance is the daily commitment of our professional community to supporting their users as they manage their way through crises of their own. As the journalist Caitlin Moran writes in her 2012 essay Libraries: The Cathedrals of the Soul:

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life-raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted.”

Image sources

"role-libraries-times-crisis.jpg" by CILIP is used under CC BY-NC 2.0. It is a derivative of the following works:

"ferguson dc protest 112514 2" by Neil Cooler, used under CC BY 2.0 / original cropped and resized

"Nelson Mandela (ANC) Addresses Special Committee Against Apartheid" by United Nations Photo, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / original cropped and resized

"FEMA 15440" by Kelly Garbato, used under CC BY-NC 2.0 / original cropped and resized

"That was supposed to be going up, wasn't it?" by Rafael Matsunaga, used under CC BY 2.0 / original cropped and resized

Published: 13 October 2015

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