U.S. Public Libraries Serve as Cooling Centers in Extreme Weather

The role of public libraries in public health is large and expanding: from helping community members sign up for Affordable Healthcare Act insurance to hosting educational programming on physical, mental, and behavioral health issues to becoming a second home to public health nurses who can help more directly. In recent years, they have also served an additional public health role: as a cooling or warming center when their regions are struck with extreme and dangerous temperatures, something that’s happening more and more often as climate warming’s impacts accelerate.

sign for NYPL cooling center in various languagesThe role of public libraries in public health is large and expanding: from helping community members sign up for Affordable Healthcare Act insurance to hosting educational programming on physical, mental, and behavioral health issues to becoming a second home to public health nurses who can help more directly. In recent years, they have also served an additional public health role: as a cooling or warming center when their regions are struck with extreme and dangerous temperatures, something that’s happening more and more often as climate warming’s impacts accelerate.

Patrick Molloy, Director of Government and Public Affairs for the Chicago Public Library (CPL), said that although library branches have served as comfort centers for several years, the frequency and duration of extreme weather events has increased. “During the polar vortex this past winter, so many people had no transportation or warm place to go that we turned our first floor into a shelter for the night,” he said.

To become such a refuge, libraries partner with local city governments, emergency operation centers, and health departments to offer a place for residents, especially the old, poor, or otherwise vulnerable, to come in from the cold—or heat.

In Philadelphia, for example, the Free Library (FLP) was approached by the city’s Department of Public Health to open cooling centers in high-need areas, such as those with large populations of senior citizens or residents living under the poverty line, said Christina Patton, FLP’s assistant to the chief, neighborhood library services division.

During normal library open hours, the on-site staff may not have to do much differently than a usual day. Though Mary Beth Revels, director of the St. Joseph Public Library in Missouri, told LJ, “the library has offered impromptu programming during extreme weather events, such as crafts for kids, coloring for all ages, and family-friendly movies.”

But even without special programming, there are still challenges: to get the word out beyond habitual library visitors, and to get those in need to the library.

The Detroit Public Library, which has been a cooling center for the community for decades, has 12 branches within walking distance in neighborhoods or accessible by public transportation. “We work in partnership with the City of Detroit to spread awareness of our cooling locations,” said Atiim J. Funchess, assistant director of marketing and communications. “Local media often helps promote them as well, [through] radio and print, social media, etc.”

Smaller towns, however, face more of an obstacle when it comes to accessibility. “Transportation is our biggest challenge,” said Revels. “Not everyone who needs a cooling center is within comfortable walking distance of one of our four branches.” One private company helped step up to offer a partial solution: in several cities, Lyft offered free rides to select library cooling centers during a heatwave.

Libraries who want to serve their communities as cooling centers should work closely with local officials for both planning and communication. “Reach out to your city/county Department of Public Health to ask if they have a plan for Heat Health Emergencies and if your library can collaborate as a cooling center,” suggested FLP’s Patton. “Begin the internal planning process (i.e. selecting the sites, informing staff about cooling centers, etc.) during the spring. When a Heat Health Emergency is activated, the turnaround time to confirm the staffing level of all sites is very quick. Effective and concise communication is key.”

This is doubly true of libraries that are extending their hours or days of service to serve as cooling centers. When temperatures in New York City rose to near 100 degrees in mid-July, officials at the city’s three library system decided to open additional branches on a Sunday, for a total of 14 library cooling centers open outside of normal operating hours. After all, said Garrett Bergen, associate director of facilities management for New York Public Library, “the heat doesn’t take weekends off.”

To get the word out about extended hours, Patton said the library shares the information at all neighborhood libraries, on social media, and on the library’s website, including a banner and blog post. City and county officials can help ensure media coverage through press releases, news conferences, 211 or 311 community resource lines, senior citizen centers and more.

Of course, to be effective as cooling centers, libraries need to make sure their air conditioning systems are working well. “We want to provide spaces that are clean, welcoming, and functioning —just like on any other day,” said Bergen. “We have to make sure our systems are working, we have adequate seating available, and everyone has access to water.”

Beyond those immediate needs, patrons who lack heating and cooling may need help with other resources, Molloy said. So CPL has piloted programs such as hosting the Greater Chicago Food Depository Lunch Bus and bringing in social workers to connect services to those who need them. “Librarians are resourceful,” Molloy said. “Libraries are about accessibility. We’re adaptable. These are kind of an extension of our other services.”

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Farrukh Scruff

Want to visit this libraray

Posted : Aug 17, 2019 11:41


Pawan Kumar Gupta

Like to read to keep me updated so that I may communicate with the students better.

Posted : Aug 14, 2019 05:53


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