BackTalk: One with the Community

By Marylaine Block

My hat's off to the librarians of the Twin Cities. After Minneapolis's I-35W bridge collapsed on August 1, the Minneapolis Public Library had “Emergency Resources for Bridge Tragedy” posted on its web site the very next morning. The Hennepin County Library and St. Paul Public Library followed suit, and the University of Minnesota's Government Publications Library posted links to bridge inspection reports and engineering documents. These libraries continue to update information.

I've spent two years researching well-funded public libraries for my book The Thriving Library (Information Today, 2007), seeking to learn how libraries earn their community's enthusiastic support. I found that the libraries and librarians most loved by their communities continually demonstrate oneness with their townspeople. These professionals understand that in a time of crisis, information is a basic need, and if institutions that claim to be the best source of information don't come through, they not only miss an opportunity to bond with their communities but also risk their credibility.

Be prepared

The library or its web site may not be the first place people turn for crisis information. But if they do, shouldn't they find guidance?

In May 2005, when the Base Reallocation and Closure (BRAC) commission issued its recommendations, the Quad Cities (Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa and Rock Island and Moline in Illinois), then my home, were hit hard. BRAC planned to eliminate hundreds of jobs at the Rock Island Arsenal, a major employer. However, when I checked the web sites for the libraries in those cities on the day the report was issued, none provided links to the BRAC report or any background information.

Wondering if that was unusual, I studied the BRAC recommendations and checked the web sites of libraries in other targeted locations. I found that it was business as usual on those library web sites, with nothing to indicate that their communities had just been slated for a serious economic blow.

On the other hand, when thousands of survivors of Hurricane Katrina arrived in Houston, both the Houston Public Library and Harris County Public Library immediately moved to set up web pages with information on where the displaced could meet their most immediate needs. The lists were thorough and imaginative: ways to locate friends and family, school information, free things to do to keep kids' minds off the horrors they'd just witnessed, assistance for animals, warnings about scams, and where to find food, clothing, diapers, furniture, employment assistance, legal help, and housing aid.

Community bonds

Some libraries take this community philosophy a step further, with special collections and web sites to memorialize major events. Following another bridge disaster, the 2002 collapse of the I-40 bridge in Oklahoma, the Tulsa City-County Library created (and still maintains) a web page on the disaster. The University of Washington Library helped to create the World Trade Organization (WTO) History Project, soliciting interviews, memoirs, and memorabilia from participants in the WTO protests of 1999.

A serious crisis often requires more than information. It may demand an opportunity to grieve together, to seek solace and understanding. Librarians at Virginia Tech are archiving student memorials after the recent tragedy there, enlisting the help of the Library of Congress. And, years after 9/11, librarians continue to organize programs to help people understand terrorism, the conflicts in the Middle East, and the religion of Islam.

This kind of oneness with the community doesn't need to come in times of tragedy only. It can apply to celebrations as well. If your city is hosting a major local event, townspeople and tourists planning to attend will need details.

The Davenport Public Library, IA, for example, hosts a porch party jazz event celebrating native son Bix Beiderbecke just before Davenport's annual jazz festival. The Lexington Public Library, KY, was one of the original supporters of Lexington's annual ideaFestival. Community bonds become even stronger when libraries seize these opportunities to provide complementary programming.

Go forth

Library leaders and empowered staff must be flexible, willing to respond immediately to crisis and to important community celebrations. We must be willing and able, at the very least, to emulate the Twin Cities librarians who immediately revamped their web sites to post critical information.

We must be as imaginative in our services as the librarians in Houston and Baton Rouge, who took the computers and books and story hours directly into the shelters harboring those displaced by Katrina. Don't just praise these librarians. Go thou and do likewise.

Author Information
Marylaine Block is a writer, speaker, and Internet publisher on library issues. Her work can be found at
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