In his book Palaces for the People, sociologist Eric Klinenberg describes how a group of planners met to discuss ways to restore resiliency to 21st century cities. Someone proposed a compelling idea for a “resilience center”—a place that would be a community gathering place, open every day, welcoming to everyone, staffed by trained professionals, with flexible space that could be adapted for many uses. Klinenberg realized that most American communities already have such a place and that it’s called a branch library.
Essential in time of crisis
The importance of libraries for community resilience was demonstrated in November 2018 when the massive Camp Fire in Butte County California destroyed the town of Paradise. Before the fire was extinguished it burned 153,336 acres and 18,804 structures; tens of thousands of people were forced to evacuate and 85 people died. In the aftermath of the blaze, American Libraries magazine reported that branches of the Butte County Library system had become disaster information centers offering computers, wi-fi and printers to help displaced people contact their insurance agents and get help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Miraculously, the Paradise library was still standing in the blackened rubble. In an NPR Interview, Jody Jones, the mayor of Paradise, talked optimistically about re-building: “We still have a high school,” she said, “We still have a hospital, a library, a town hall.”
Before Hurricane Katrina, libraries were treated by FEMA as non-essential services, but after Louisiana libraries played a significant role in disaster recovery, there was pressure to change federal law. Since 2011, libraries have been treated as a priority for post-disaster restoration.
In a crisis, libraries can serve as information hubs, disaster communication centers and distribution points for food, tarps, sandbags and other supplies. But perhaps more importantly they offer a place for displaced people to go, a safe haven that restores a sense of normalcy.
The reason libraries are so effective to re-ground and re-center communities in crisis is that they already serve a similar if less urgent role in more normal times, with goals for literacy, civic engagement and community resiliency, as well as collections that preserve community memory, identity, history and a sense of place.
The answer to the U.N.’s “sustainable development goals”: libraries
In 2015, the United Nations defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a framework to achieve a better, more equitable, more sustainable future. The SDGs don’t just focus on Climate Action (SDG #13), but address the whole spectrum of conditions that affect human, ecological and economic well-being.
International librarians soon realized that every one of the 17 goals intersects with the mission of libraries. The librarians proposed their libraries as a key organization to promote sustainable development. Instead of building new public infrastructure, new committees or new government organizations, how about building a sustainable society through libraries that already exists?
The idea has caught on. At the 2019 winter meeting of the American Library Association in Seattle, Washington, American librarians adopted a resolution to make sustainability a core value of librarianship. The resolution defines sustainability as the triple bottom-line of practices that are environmentally sound, economically feasible and socially equitable. In somewhat bureaucratic language, it proposes that librarians can save the world: “The Association, library profession and libraries of all types—academic public, school, and special—have the stature, energy, determination and will to build the coalitions, convene the conversations and act as the catalysts the world needs, not only today, but to inspire future generations to take control of their future by working together to find the necessary adaptations and solutions to thrive as communities.”
The principle of sharing
Sometimes people ask whether it’s more ecologically sound to read print books (made from highly processed dead trees) or ebooks (distributed via equipment made from plastic and conflict minerals, powered by fossil fuels). In fact, the most sustainable option is a library book that you borrow and give back so someone else can read it.
Library sharing offers a model for both Quality Education (SDG #4) and Responsible Consumption and Production (SDG #12). This principle of sharing can extend to nearly anything—computer equipment, software, meeting spaces, musical instruments, tools, toys, seeds, business clothes, bicycles – you name it and there is probably a library somewhere lending it.
Chip Ward, former assistant director of the Salt Lake Public Library, helped lead the way for U.S. libraries to address No Poverty (SDG #1) and Reduced Inequality (SDG # 10). In 2007 he published an essay on TomDispatch.com titled “What They Didn’t Teach Us in Library School.” The essay described how, in the absence of adequate shelters and social services, libraries have become a refuge for people who are homeless and/or mentally ill. After telling heartrending stories of homeless people whom he had come to know personally, Ward wrote, “What do you think about a culture that abandons suffering people and expects them to fend for themselves on the street, then criminalizes them for expressing the symptoms of illnesses they cannot control?”
If society can’t change, one answer is to cope with the problem where it’s happening. Since librarians aren’t trained social workers, Volunteers of America now has a Library Engagement Team at the Salt Lake Public Library offering support and referrals for social, medical and mental health services. The story has another happy ending as well. The film rights for Ward’s essay were purchased by Emilio Estavez (Yes, Otto from Repo Man) who turned it into a movie called The Public (2018). In the movie, Estavez plays a librarian-turned-social justice advocate as controversy erupts over homeless people who shelter at a public library during a severe cold snap.
How do libraries address Life Below Water (SDG #14) or Life on Land (SDG #15)? Book talks related to local ecology are one obvious example, as are collections and programming that relate to the local environment and ecosystem.
Recently the Salt Lake City Public Library and Natural History Museum of Utah teamed up on a wonderful project called Field Work: Aligning Poetry & Science, a three-year grant from Poets House to foster science learning though poetry. The project has published a Field Work Field Guide illustrated by local artist Claire Taylor that encourages people to visit urban natural areas for poetic inspiration.
The idea that people will protect familiar places they have grown to love also lies behind the “Hidden Water” website hosted by the University of Utah J. Willard Marriott Library which unveils the watershed on the east side of Salt Lake Valley in support of Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG #6). The authors explain that Salt Lake Valley water is a closed system, as water that evaporates from Great Salt Lake falls in the Wasatch Mountains as lake-effect snow: “Hopefully, when our water is no longer hidden, we will begin to better appreciate and conserve it.”
The shared resources offered by libraries create an opportunity for other community organizations seeking to deliver and amplify their message. Partnerships for the Goals (SDG #17) means that everyone should be invited to the sustainability table, and partnering with a library is a way to avoid territoriality and make sure a public event is truly open to the public.
We librarians actually know that we can’t save the world all by ourselves. If you have a plan to save the world, too, think of the library as a kind of resilience center. Maybe the library can do something to help.
Amy Brunvand (University of Utah librarian) is presenting on “Libraries as Partners for Community Sustainability” at the Intermountain Sustainability Summit, Weber State University, Ogden, Utah. March 21 & 22, 2019.
Klinenberg, Eric. Palaces for the people: how social infrastructure can help fight inequality, polarization, and the decline of civic life. Crown, 2018.
Field Work: Aligning Poetry and Science. Th 4/18, 7:00-9:00 PM , Salt Lake Public Library, Marmalde Branch: Anthropologist Lisbeth Louderback, indigenous food expert Cynthia Wilson, and poet Orlando White.