THE ESSENTIALS OF LIFE
by Marylaine Block
As we've been watching the human disaster of the hurricane unfold before our eyes, it's becoming clear that the real essentials of life are food, water, and information. People in the middle of catastrophe need answers: Where are my children, my friends, my elderly grandmother, my baby who was airlifted from the hospital? Are my home and my job under water? How do I get my money from a bank when its electronic network doesn't work? How long will it be before the water goes down? Where do I find a place to live? How can I find another job? How can I send my kids to school?
How can I get my life back?
And where information is as vital as food and shelter, it pleases me to see how swiftly librarians have stepped in to meet the need. The Houston Public Library and the Harris County Public Library are supplying a wide range of services to thousands of survivors housed in the city's convention center, the Astrodome, the Reliant Park complex, and in apartments and the homes of relatives around the city.
Both libraries immediately moved to set up web pages with information on how survivors can meet their most immediate needs: food, clothing, diapers, furniture, employment assistance, legal help, housing assistance, schools, free things to do to keep the kids' minds off the horrors they'd witnessed -- you name it. See http://www.hpl.lib.tx.us/hpl/katrina.html and http://www.hcpl.net/ebranch/news/archives/000329.html.
Both libraries immediately offered library cards and services to the evacuees. Several branches of the Houston Public Library turned over their computer labs and volunteer help to the survivors, helped them fill out FEMA claims forms and look online for their missing loved ones, and provided them with free copies and printouts.
City officials had relocated conventions that had been scheduled at the George R. Brown Convention Center, at the cost of substantial expected revenue, in order to offer that space to the refugees (and I can't tell you how much I admire them for that). The convention center is part of the Houston Public Library's service area.
Sandra Fernandez, Public Relations Manager for HPL, says that they've been operating an impromptu "branch" library on site at the convention center since Saturday, September 3. She says, "We have Library staff there, as well as volunteers. We don't have a circulating library at that location. The materials are all either donated recently for that library or provided by the Friends of the Houston Public Library -- which means that when something is "checked out" at that library, they can keep the materials. We have (as of yesterday) approximately 16 computers there, with internet access, games and reading materials for all ages. We are holding storytimes throughout the day as well. The GRB [convention center] is just a mile or two from the Central Library, and we are offering temporary library cards to all evacuees which then can then be used at all library locations."
The Astrodome is in the Harris County Public Library's service area. HCPL Deputy Director Rhoda Goldberg explains that the Astrodome is one of three buildings in Reliant Park, all of which are housing hurricane survivors. Early on, she says, librarians told officials they were ready to offer on-site services, but were told that they weren't ready for that yet -- finding adequate space has been an issue. HCPL librarians have, however, been bringing books to the buildings, and have been working on getting space to set up computers, and volunteers to assist people with them. Meanwhile, survivors from the shelters and survivors who have already found housing are getting temporary library cards and using the library's collections, computers, and services.
Louisiana State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton told Library Journal** that library staff throughout the state worked over the Labor Day weekend, driving vans back and forth to shelters and issuing temporary library cards. Shreve Public Library in Shreveport -- a town that has essentially doubled in population within a week -- has not only been taking books to shelters and putting on story hours for the children, but has also been accepting donations to provide survivors with small necessities like school supplies.
And the lovely thing about our work is that it doesn't stop when the immediate crisis is over. Should these displaced people settle in our communities, we will keep on helping them get back on their own feet.
As a profession, we have been working hard to convince taxpayers, mayors, legislators, and governors that libraries are a necessity, not a frill. We tell them, over and over, that "libraries change lives." In a time of crisis and urgent need, these and other libraries have proven it. While some government agencies dithered, allowing people to die while they were figuring out who was in charge, librarians were giving government a good name, showing that caring, imaginative public servants can give people the help they need to resume productive lives.
The libraries I've mentioned reacted quickly because their communities were the first to receive huge numbers of survivors. Libraries in Dallas and Memphis and other cities are beginning to provide similar services. They offer a commendable model of service for the libraries around the country that will soon be dealing with evacuees as they get dispersed around the country.
There's one more thing I would love to see librarians do for the survivors. Have you noticed that they seem almost desperate to tell their stories to someone? I want us to listen to their stories. In fact, I'd like to see librarians and historical societies and volunteers collect those stories on tape, digitize them, and put them on the web where the whole world can hear them. This could even be a nation-wide project, with libraries across the country contributing the stories of the survivors who have reached their communities.
It would be important for us, as keepers of the histories of our communities. It would be more important for the survivors, though, because to honor their stories is to say to them: YOUR LIFE MATTERS.
And that may be the greatest possible service we could render to people whose experiences during the past terrible week have told them otherwise.
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It turns out that our individual striving goes on within a web of social protections that we take for granted until they disappear. We rely on each other more than we know. The rich, the middle class and the poor -- all of us -- bank on law, government, collective action and public goods more than we ever want to admit. The dreaded word "infrastructure" puts people to sleep at city council meetings and congressional hearings. But when publicly built infrastructure -- those levees that held for so many years -- breaks down, we realize that the things that seem boring and not worth thinking about are essential.
E.J. Dionne. "When Government Is Good." Washington Post, September 2, 2005 http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/01/AR2005090102032.html
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