Midwestern Libraries Grapple with Polar Vortex

During the final week of January, temperatures across the Midwest plunged to dangerous, record-breaking lows. Many libraries remained open and helped keep their constituents warm, out of the elements, informed, entertained, and, most of all, safe.

Leo Dunnigan (r.), of PLCHC security, and patron dressed against the cold—indoors
Photo by Chris Rice

During the final week of January, temperatures across the Midwest plunged to dangerous, record-breaking lows. Even in a region accustomed to the cold, the polar vortex brought business as usual to a halt, closing schools, universities, courtrooms, and many businesses; grounding domestic flights; and prompting the United States Postal Service to suspend mail deliveries in Minnesota, western Wisconsin, Iowa, and Western Illinois. States of emergency were issued in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Michigan. Freezing temperatures were even felt as far south as Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia.

A number of libraries across the region asked patrons and staff to stay home in light of the dangerous conditions and requests from city officials that residents remain indoors. “While we strive to keep our libraries open as much as possible during inclement weather, the extremely low temperatures pose a danger to our staff traveling to and from work,” David Archer, director of Cook Memorial Public Library District facilities in Libertyville and Vernon Hills, IL, told the Chicago Daily Herald.

Michigan’s Rochester Hills Public Library had been open all week, serving as a local warming center during open hours, but was forced to close Thursday morning because of a water main break.

The Toledo Lucas County Public Library, OH, was closed until Thursday, but announced that, from February 1–15, a library card will get patrons into their local YMCA of greater Toledo location for a free visit—to burn off a little accumulated cabin fever.

Many others, however, remained open and helped keep their constituents warm, out of the elements, informed, entertained, and, most of all, safe.


Minnesota experienced some of the most severe temperatures, but many libraries there did their best to keep their doors open nonethless. The Cook Public Library, MN, remained open despite morning temperatures that hovered around -40˚, but was forced to close on Tuesday because of heating issues, said director Crystal Phillips. But the library reopened the following day, when it was one of the few places open in town. “Schools, banks, the restaurant across the street were all closed,” said Phillips. “Many patrons are here to use the computers and get out of the cold.”

Minneapolis public schools were closed most of the week—first because of a snowstorm Monday, and then through Thursday because of the extreme cold—but the Hennepin County Library (HCL) stayed open. From the Central Library in the heart of Minneapolis to branches throughout the surrounding suburbs and rural areas, all 41 locations maintained their regular hours. "I'm really proud of the fact that we were able to keep all of our buildings open,” interim director Janet Mills told LJ—thanks, she added, to staff and facilities services.

The facilities themselves held up well to the deep freeze, she reported, including one branch that uses geothermal energy to heat the building, and was “a little more challenged in this extreme weather, but we were able to keep it open,” said Mills. “Our facilities services staff…worked really hard to make sure that system was keeping the building as warm as it needed to be.”

Although no additional programs for out-of-school students had been put in place ahead of time, the library was able to support the extra influx of children. "If there was a group of young people, a librarian would do an impromptu story time or just try to guide them in how to use our early literacy spaces in or use the computers if that's what they wanted to do,” noted Mills. HCL also made the decision to extend both due dates and hold items; material due or holds that would have expired on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday of that week were extended until the end of the day on Friday, February 1. Patrons who needed further time accommodations were encouraged to call the library.

A number of branches served as warming shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness or who just needed a place to get in out of the cold. Serendipitously, the Friends of the Hennepin County Library had scheduled an author event on Tuesday night that brought in Matthew Desmond, author of the recent Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown), which went ahead as planned. “It was an interesting coincidence, with him talking about individuals he interviewed for the book and whom he stays in close relationship with who have experienced housing instability,” said Mills, “and then to be…talking about that as a group of audience members just when we were having this really significant cold weather. It felt good to be in that conversation and have so many members of the community there together with us."

The extreme conditions have been something of a bonding experience for staff as well, said Mills. “I think those who have come in have developed that camaraderie that comes from being together in an unusual situation. I'm hearing some good spirits among library staff and a great understanding of the importance of us being open as a place for our community to come in."


The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCHC), OH, has been on the library world’s radar as Emilio Estevez’s film The Public, filmed at PLCHC, prepares to launch this spring. The film’s plot centers around a library’s response to its homeless community during a particularly bitter winter night, and the staff’s battles to keep its doors open for them. 

The real-life PLCHC made sure it served those with no place to stay. Residents were encouraged to come into the library and get warm—a message reinforced by a story on local NBC affiliate WLTW5. The PLCHC civic engagement coordinator made sure that staff had all the information they needed to help patrons, newly appointed director Paula Brehm-Heeger told LJ. The library also works closely with nonprofit Downtown Cincinnati Inc., which sent its ambassadors by at closing time to make sure people had the assistance they needed to find shelter after hours.

Most local school districts were closed through Friday, and the library stepped up to serve community children on what Brehm-Heeger termed an “ad hoc” basis. “It's evolving as we go,” she explained. “It's not necessarily advertised…but we’ve mentioned in all of our outreach that it's a great place to bring kids if schools are closed.” Extra children’s services and story times are happening as needed, she added. “They're not necessarily coming at 10:30 and 2—they're here throughout the day."

Staff are in good spirits, she reported—even if they do need extra layers to do their jobs. “We have a big open area here at our main library and our staff are wearing their coats because the doors are opening and closing and it's a little bit cold,” said Brehm-Heeger. “As always, they do us proud, and they're doing a great job of being here and feeling how important it is that the library's open when so many other organizations are not able to be open today. I think our staff takes it really seriously and in many ways are quite pleased that we're able to provide that option for folks who really need us.”


Chicago Public Library (CPL) kept all its branches open, and then went the extra mile to help residents.

As part of the city’s emergency management protocol, libraries in every neighborhood served as warming centers to help provide a matrix of facilities throughout the city, including police stations, rec centers, and park facilities. With representatives at the city’s central Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC), the library helped coordinate with the police and fire departments. “All we're trying to do is get our doors open so that there's a warm place for people to go, whether their heat goes out or if they're stuck on the street,” CPL commissioner Brian Bannon told LJ. “We've relaxed our policies…. People can bring food. In some locations staff are making soup.” 

Staff who had trouble making it to work were encouraged to stay home—“Obviously, safety first,” said Bannon. Anyone affected by public school closings Wednesday and Thursday was welcome to bring their children to work. “We're trying to keep spirits high. It's just part of being in Chicago. Libraries have a role in supporting the safety of the city while also being open to the public and providing library services."

Branches staggered closing hours between 6, 8, and 9 p.m., and all maintained a direct line to the city system that would send a van to any location and pick up people who needed to get to a safe, warm place. Chicago also keeps a fleet of warming buses, for those who don’t want to or can’t go to a shelter. CPL’s central Harold Washington Library Center has arranged for a warming bus outside when it closes at 9 p.m.. Several staff members at branches that closed earlier stayed for hours making sure that any remaining visitors were taken to shelter. 

By Wednesday night, January 30, OEMC was overwhelmed with calls and requests for transportation, and were unable to commit to getting buses or vans to the library when it closed. “So staff made a makeshift shelter here at the Washington Library,” Bannon told LJ. They used their own money to buy blankets at a nearby CVS, ordered pizza, and housed 34 people, he reported. “They didn't even ask my permission, just called me after the fact and said, ‘We weren't going to send them out on the street.’ They got food delivered, they stayed the night.” 

Bannon added, pride evident in his voice. “We had talked about how we would never turn anybody out, but I never anticipated this.... It wasn't a management decision. It was rank and file staff doing what was right."

Author Image
Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.



We are currently offering this content for free. Sign up now to activate your personal profile, where you can save articles for future viewing