Friday, September 02, 2005

Libraries and risk management and vulnerable populations

I'm angry at the apparent incompetence and indifference from officials at all levels of power which has resulted in the most vulnerable social segment of the population of the city of New Orleans being treated like animals, or criminals, or worse. I didn't think this weblog would be the proper place to vent my own tears on this issue, until I was forwaraded a note about how the American Library Association has a web page devoted to its Hurricane Katrina relief efforts. Many of these notices list efforts to find out if library personnel, library buildings, and library holdings have survived flood, wind, and fire damage. But some are of a different nature. For example:

Here in Calcasieu Parish we have had many hurricane evacuees coming to our libraries throughout the parish to use our internet computers. Yesterday we collected and dropped off donated books and magazines at the civic center Red Cross shelter and opened up a computer lab in our downtown meeting room for the exclusive use of evacuees (it is within walking distance of the civic center). Every branch is reporting waiting lines for using the public computers. Staff have created a web page with links for the evacuees and are constantly updating it. Reference staff at the various libraries are gathering and distributing information to evacuees in their communities. Children’s librarians are setting up story programs with the Red Cross.

Such efforts from the non-profit information professions -- as with efforts announced by midwestern state universities that they would provide spaces for students and faculty displaced from their Gulf Coast homes, jobs, and schools -- are heartening in the face of so much state mismanagement and chaos, especially with regard to the largely poor and largely African-American citizens still -- days later! -- fending for themselves in the former city of New Orleans. I can't help but wonder, though, what might have happened differently if local information agencies like public libraries -- or public schools, community centers, and the like -- had been involved beforehand in emergency planning and preparedness processes. For example

(1) These are agencies which are best positioned to "get the word out" to local residents about evacuation routes, contingency plans, weather warnings, basic survival tools, and the like;

(2) These are agencies which know best the literacy and education and mobility level of their local publics and can help emergency management officials craft messages and outreach strategies that actually reach and affect their target audiences; and

(3) These are agencies with longstanding storage, transport, and information-communication networks of their own which may be quickly mobilized in the event of emergency.

What would happen if public library managers around the country, in both large urban and small rural library systems, took on a "homeland security" role as well? What would happen if some of the programming in public libraries included disaster education, risk awareness, and community asset inventories? What would happen if libraries took seriously the notion that not just printed and magnetic media, but community experience as embodied in local institutions, organizations, households, and leaders represented the "informational capital" which they were held responsible to preserve and distribute?

Maybe if someone had asked a day-to-day working librarian in New Orleans for input on the city, state, and federal emergency "plans" which have evidently failed so miserably, that librarian would have been able to answer: "There are lots of people in this city who don't have cars, who don't follow storm predictions on the Internet, who don't have the literacy skills to read FEMA forms, who don't have the economic resources to afford flood insurance, or who for any number of reasons simply won't be able leave their homes, their families, and their lives in this city during an emergency unless you are able to come and get them and treat them with the respect they deserve, right now."

P.S. On a related note, here's the Craigslist for Katrina aid, a novel example of Web-based emergency response (hope it turns out to be useful to some). I'm assuming you know how to get to the sites for Red Cross, America's Second Harvest and the like if you have money to donate.

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