Critical Connectors

During emergencies, citizens and even some disaster workers depend on libraries for Internet connections to the world.
December 2006
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

They don't pilot boats down hurricane-flooded streets or pull people from second-story windows. Nor do they wear uniforms, carry firearms or direct emergency vehicles. But library employees have been first responders nevertheless. People in coastal states who lost their homes to the wind and water of hurricanes Katrina and Rita flocked to public computers housed in libraries. They filed insurance claims, connected with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, contacted family members and found out via the Internet what was happening in the communities they'd had to flee.

"For most people in the community, a public library represents a safe place," says Sharman Smith, executive director of the Mississippi Library Commission. And that's literally true. Libraries usually are housed in solid, well-constructed buildings, less likely than some other structures to be affected by Mother Nature. And virtually everyone in the community knows where they are. Moreover, a whopping 70 percent of library computer users depend on libraries as their primary access to the electronic world. So it's not surprising that libraries are a natural place citizens turn to during a local emergency.

But while library personnel have, in effect, become de facto first responders, they don't get any additional help to do the job. Recognition of this additional community role that libraries play-- beyond books and reading rooms--seems to be missing. Nearly half of U.S. public libraries either lost funding or received no additional funding in 2006, according to "Public Libraries and the Internet 2006," a recently released report funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Despite that discouraging fiscal trend, "public libraries," says John Carlo Bertot, a professor at Florida State University and co-author of the 2006 report, "are taking on additional roles at their own expense."

One of those roles is as advisers. Last year, for instance, many seniors flummoxed by the complexity of Medicare Part D flocked to libraries to sit at a computer, pull up Medicare Part D information and ask library employees for help. Even those who had computers at home were turning up at libraries for assistance in filling out online forms, picking plans and answering questions. "Where else are people going to go for help?" Bertot asks. "It's not like other government agencies open up their building and say, 'On the first floor, we have a lab and someone there to answer questions.' The rubber is hitting the road somewhere and it's the public library."

Nor do libraries get much recognition for providing technological aid and assistance to disaster workers. During a local emergency in Florida, a bookmobile with wireless access was commandeered by local emergency workers: They didn't have their own wireless vehicle and needed to make contact with resources.

In Pasco County, Florida, library staff are literally emergency responders. They organize and run the resident information center that gets activated during storms. They share a room in the emergency management office, which has phone banks and computers, taking calls from residents if the volume of those calls overwhelms emergency services personnel.

Library staff give callers timely information and referrals, such as where they can get water and ice, which hotels are pet friendly, whether there will be an evacuation, where the sandbags are available. It was the library staff that developed a database for this purpose, and it is updated from storm to storm. "We have at our fingertips as much information as possible to give to people on a timely basis when they're in a stressful situation, says Stephen Kershner, assistant libraries director for public services with the Pasco County Library System.

It's a natural fit for library workers who are used to answering questions and giving information and customer service. The only unnatural part: The staff has no emergency training.

If governments are relying on library staffs to be purveyors of e- government and to engage in disaster-relief efforts, they should include library personnel in emergency planning conversations and exercises--to say nothing of offering courses in how to prepare for their roles in a disaster. "We're trained to be information professionals," Bertot says. "We're not trained as first responders."

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman | Former columnist |