Discussion topic: the role of libraries in disasters

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection http://tiny.cc/p8wslx

Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection http://tiny.cc/p8wslx

Libraries exist all over the world. This means that they are subject to the types of events that happen all over the world. We promote the idea of the library as a safe place of learning and discovery, but sometimes that safety is hard to provide. In this discussion topic we’re going to look at the role of libraries in times of natural and human-made disasters.

Libraries have an important role to play in disasters, as they occupy a trusted place in the mind of the public. When electricity and internet access are cut off, the library is often where the community will congregate. Libraries can act as collection points for aid and communication hubs. The library can play these roles because they are known as public, open places, with no entry fees – an important feature for those who may have lost homes and possessions.

Libraries have an equally important but difficult role to play in times of war and civil strife. Libraries are protectors of culture and history, which can be a target for those seeking to destroy a culture. Libraries are traditional protectors of freedom of information, however this can clash with the goals of parties to conflict. Library staff are rarely trained in defensive techniques, and yet sometimes find themselves having to protect people, buildings and ideas. How should a library respond in times of unrest?

Some questions you may wish to discuss with your partner:

  • Can you think of an example from your part of the world?
  • How have libraries in your region responded in times of natural or human-made disasters?

Over the next fortnight we have two blog posts planned for this topic. We’ll look at how the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt responded to widespread anti-government protests in 2011. Our second post, a guest post from IFLA Governing Board Member Loida Garcia-Febo, will outline the resources and support that IFLA provides to libraries worldwide in times of disaster. We hope you contribute to this discussion with your partners and with us online, through Facebook and Twitter.

Please note: The ILN is an international program, and our participants come from all over the world. There are current conflicts that are impacting libraries and their communities, which we have not discussed in detail in an attempt to avoid unintentional bias. Having said that, we support the freedom of access to information and expression for all, and we condemn any individual, group or government that seeks to limit that freedom.

Alyson Dalby, ILN Program Coordinator

Posted in Discussion topics, Round 3.


  1. Indeed libraries ought to take a lead role in protecting and preserving both humanity and culture. Disasters do strike and many times come unannounced.
    Librarians can therefore take initiatives such as informing users of updates regarding the disaster, measures that can be taken to save humanity, ways of preserving culture, updates on how to curb more menace on the disaster and many more. The use of technology to disseminate information & the great knowledge of SDI can help update the community of the happenings around. Thank you.

  2. I was working as a sole charge librarian during the devastating earthquakes of 2011 in Christchurch New Zealand. We lost access to our building and I felt very isolated from my library community. I documented my experience of working remotely in a collection of 20 short blog posts http://sarahlibrarina.tumblr.com/remotingit.

    Christchurch City Libraries did an amazing job of maintaining a presence in the community who so desperately needed things to do and places to go. Libraries and like cultural institutions have an essential role to play in disaster recovery, community cohesion and well-being [1].

    Since this disaster LIANZA has produced a guide to “Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery” http://www.lianza.org.nz/disaster-preparedness-response-and-recovery.

    [1] Gallagher, S. K. J., Adams, A., Howard, A., Robertson, D., Reynolds, R., & Winn, C. (2013, November). Libraries and wellbeing in post-earthquake Christchurch. Presented at the Researching the Health Implications of Seismic Events Symposium. http://hdl.handle.net/10523/4387

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