Disaster Management & Public Libraries

Recently I watched Spotlight on: The Massachusetts Public Library Construction Program on US Building Digest‘s website. It is about the construction program for libraries in Massachusetts, which is a state program, as opposed to New York’s more local systems. New York City has three separate systems, by the way:

All of which are pretty fantastic in that they serve incredibly diverse populations and have some amazing collections. As a planner in Brooklyn, I am partial to the NYPL Map Division and the BPL Brooklyn Collection.

There has been a great deal of controversy and outcry over recent budget cuts to these libraries. Libraries are often one of the first services cut during periods of economic turmoil, but are also most heavily utilized and needed during those same time periods.

Arguments for not cutting library funding are often centered around support services for job seekers and new entrepreneurs and literacy and children’s programs, but Massachusetts may have identified another good reason: integration of disaster management into library systems. It is one of the first things mentioned in the video, and I was impressed by what a natural fit it seems: Libraries are neutral places where people are predisposed to go to for information, so using them as FEMA outposts in times of emergency fits. This is also a huge argument for the continued investment in public libraries. Libraries are community resources, but also can be sanctuaries in times of need. This makes reading posts like this troubling (and that is after you get over the article coming from a Socialist blog criticizing a guy named Marx).

This got me thinking, so I looked at OEM‘s website to see if NYC has integrated libraries in its disaster management efforts. I found this mention in their general household guide:

“Decide where your household will reunite after a disaster. Identify two places to meet: one near your home and another outside your immediate neighborhood, such as a library, community center, or a friend’s home.”

The only other mentions of libraries on the website (I did a search of the site for the word “library”) were in relation to using them as cooling centers in 2010 and occasionally as locations to get literature. It seems that this is a missed opportunity, since libraries have high speed internet, experienced professional staff, well-known and easily identifiable physical presences in their communities, and restrooms. As an existing resource, the costs associated with activating them as FEMA emergency centers (like Massachusetts does) are likely not too prohibitive, but there could also be additional funding resources leveraged for these important community resources.

Massachusetts, I think you are on to something! Better integrating the extensive library systems in New York City (and State) into the disaster management protocols (or better publicizing it if this is done) might be a worthwhile endeavor, both to provide assistance to New Yorkers in times of need, and to argue for more continued funding and support for libraries.

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