Libraries in Times of Emergency- Lessons Learned
Ann M. Friedman
On the morning of September 11 around 9 o'clock I was doing what library directors frequently do: standing at a library construction site and explaining to the foreman why the endless delays (weeks) in finishing a library are unacceptable. The only difference this time was that the library site was one half mile from the Pentagon.
As the events of the day and the following weeks unfolded, I learned and relearned many lessons about the importance of librarians' skills and the value of libraries to communities. I also recognized some of the limitations we as a profession need to overcome if we are to become what we all envision as essential: a widely recognized, vital force in the community.
Lesson one: Librarians know how to organize information-not just "library" type, fairly static, information, but, more broadly, content. Because these skills have long been recognized here in Arlington and because in a small government all "recognized" skills are utilized, the library system manages the county, as well as the library, web site; the government cable channel; and the I & R service, which answers the county's main phone number. As a consequence of all these responsibilities, I also chair the Arlington County Communications Emergency Task Group.
The need to organize information and use it across formats was dramatically seen in the Information and Referral service. Within hours of the incident, the I & R service was overwhelmed with offers of help-from food to cranes to off-duty emergency personnel wanting to volunteer. Some of the services were desperately needed, but the question quickly became how to capture the information in a usable format-usable by multiple players in real time in multiple locations.
Libraries think databases-a library staff member quickly created one. The phone offers were entered directly into the database-almost 1,000 in the first week. For the first few days the I & R service operated 24 hours a day. Firefighters located badly needed supplies; Human Service workers found needed counselors; food for workers was directed to the right place. At the end of the critical emergency period, thank-you calls were made to the donors using the information captured in the database.
Lesson two: Complete, absolutely accurate, information delivered long after the need has passed is less useful than more limited information delivered in a timely manner. During the 9/11 emergency, the information on local conditions was changing so rapidly that a daily newspaper could not provide adequate coverage. Consequently, the cable channel and the county web site transformed themselves from mostly passive repositories of local-interest programming and information, much like libraries, to active news sources. The county web site was reformatted to include a news page with local information, including massive and changing road closings, bus rerouting, and links to broader news stories at the state and federal level. The visual aspects and design of the site were also changed to reflect the emergency in the county and in the country.
Lesson three: Information must be re-purposed and used across all delivery formats -from video to web to print. Arlington is the fire department of the Pentagon and local police are responsible for the roads and access points around the Pentagon. Consequently, the twice-daily news briefings at the Pentagon, which involved local police and firefighters, were of great local interest. These briefings were not fully reported in the national media. The local government cable channel taped and edited the briefings and broadcast them on the local cable channel within hours. The briefings were then transcribed and put into a news format on the web site.
Lesson four: Public access to e-mail is an important public utility in an emergency. During this emergency operation, the seven public libraries in the county remained open for business, closing only one evening on the first day. In the first few days because telephone circuits in the area were overwhelmed, libraries, particularly in the multi-ethnic areas near the Pentagon, were heavily used for e-mail. Families made connections with other family members in their homelands to say they were all right. Others sought information about friends and family in New York.
Lesson five: Symbols of a government in control and continuing to operate are critical to community stability in an emergency. Arlington County libraries were one of those symbols. They were a sign of normalcy. The government was working and delivering services as usual. The community appreciated the symbolic and real service.
This formal rethinking and "lessons learned" might give the impression of a well-oiled machine waiting for the right emergency to show its stuff. Hardly! It was a raggedy operation with panic often close at hand. We never knew what we would be called on to do next, and fatigue set in as time passed. Anthrax was not a welcome visitor, nor were the tornado winds that swirled through the neighborhood of the newly opened library. This leads me to a final lesson.
Lesson six: Libraries in their traditional role are important builders of stable communities, but they also must not be afraid to use their very great skills broadly. In the words of business plans in a competitive, Internet-driven economy-we must shorten the time between product development and the marketplace-and we must market our skills and products broadly in order to remain competitive. a