We’ve seen this before, and unfortunately we’ll see it again. Libraries in Baltimore are staying open to provide services while the Governor has declared a state of emergency and schools and businesses are closed. I’m proud of my colleagues. I’m not dissing the schools or businesses that are closed – I don’t know everything that’s going on in Baltimore. I do know that it’s best for families to be together in scary times, and large locations like schools may need to be converted to short-term shelters. Businesses are being targeted and many can’t open.
What I would like to point out is that there’s been a divide in libraryland about the value of a library in a community, with one side saying that a library offers “essential services” while the other side says that a library offers “enrichment services.” I’m with the enrichment camp; I feel that in a crisis or a catastrophic event, our essential services are police, fire and other emergency services. But when the dust settles, and as soon as possible, library administration and the governing board can work with town services and officials to activate an emergency response plan to provide a ramped up version of services. We can act as quickly as possible to provide normalcy and comfort, enriching the lives of our patrons and trying to alleviate some of the turmoil while the emergency service teams work around the clock to restore functionality.
In my town we’ve not had to deal with rioting and civil unrest. We have dealt with town-wide power outages due to nor’easters and other wild weather-related events that last for days. During these events, the library has extended our hours, provided free hot beverages and donuts, movies and other activities and probably most valuable, a sympathetic human side. Our current space has limitations – we don’t have shower facilities so we can’t act as a full out shelter with beds – but those are features that we’ve talked about adding in a new facility.
Like I said, I’m proud of my colleagues. A huge draw for working in the field is customer service, sharing a love of literacy and knowledge, and preserving history while generating and promoting new, creative ideas. So I’m not surprised when I read about libraries in crisis situations moving quickly and empathetically like these libraries in Baltimore, Ferguson, or in the NY-NJ region after Hurricane Sandy. It would be ideal if we all worked to improve society to eradicate the evil and unrest, and we can only react to a natural disaster…but until then, we’ll keep the doors open.