Posted by Jim Craner on April 9, 2019

When a disaster strikes, information can be just as valuable as water, power, or critical supplies!  Learn more about how your library can provide information and access following a disaster.

Providing Public Internet Access At The Library

One of the most critical requirements after a disaster is the restoration of communications with the outside world, and these days, that means the Internet.  While first responders, whether at the local, state, or federal level, may have their own data and communications infrastructure,  libraries can still provide access for responders, volunteers, and survivors.  Internet access is critical after a disaster for:

  • filing government disaster benefits claims
  • filing insurance claims and other paperwork
  • communicating with friends/family outside the disaster zone
  • coordinating volunteers and support from outside the disaster zone

Because Internet access is so important during a disaster, it may be necessary to expand opportunities for leveraging the library’s connectivity.

Providing Public Internet Access Away From The Library

Whether or not your library still has wired Internet access, you may still be able to provide Internet access to your community by re-purposing mobile hotspots. These devices serve as temporary Wi-Fi routers, providing Internet access to a few laptops or phones via a 4G connection to a cell phone provider.  Many libraries stock these hot-spot devices to circulate in the community, thanks to programs like TechSoup's Mobile Beacon donation project [] and Sonoma County’s SonoFi [ program.  During a disaster, hot-spots still in the library could be prioritized for first-responder use. Libraries could also partner with other organizations, such as the Red Cross, and use the hot-spot at shelters for displaced people.

Publish Information; Combat Misinformation

Misinformation can spread in the best of times, and the librarians thrive at providing correct information. In an emergency situation, there should be one official source for information, such as the county emergency management office or lead disaster response agency.  However, the information should be published in multiple channels, such as the Emergency Alert System, your city or library's website, your library's Facebook page, or other means.  In many communities, the library website is the only public-facing website that can be easily changed without a complicated technical process. 

Accurate information can also be relayed via posters and update boards in the library to ensure people coming into the library have an easy, low-tech way to get the latest, accurate information.

Provide Disaster-Specific and Community-Specific Information Resources

Librarians know their communities and their communities' needs when it comes to information and there are specialized resources that can come in handy that might not be on your radar.

The National Library of Medicine has a full catalog [] of emergency-related apps from their departments and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention that librarians should be familiar with.  Your city/county's first responders should have some of these apps installed on their work devices, including WISER - the Wireless Information System for Emergency Responders.  This app includes hazardous materials identification and response advice for first responders encountering unknown materials in an emergency.  Another interesting example in this catalog is "ShowMe" - an icon/pictogram-driven phone app that lets people with limited or no English communicate with emergency responders by picking emergency-related icons from a screen.

Many librarians already spend a significant part of their time helping patrons navigate government websites, print and complete forms, register for programs, and similar tasks.  After a disaster, there will be a new set of websites to learn, a new set of forms to complete, and reels of red tape that librarians can help their patrons navigate.  Become familiar with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) website as well as your state's emergency management agency counterpart's website.  FEMA may even place representatives inside the library to meet with displaced people and answer their questions directly.

Library leaders should be developing relationships with local emergency responders long before there is an emergency. In my small, rural Illinois community, the library shares the municipal center with the police department, and we coordinate on community events such as the National Night Out public safety event and the state-mandated active shooter training for librarians.  We also received a small grant to acquire materials based on recommendations from the police department, such as first aid/survival manuals and books about the opiate epidemic; these materials have proven popular.

Other libraries in areas that experience hurricanes, wildfires and other recurring disasters are more likely to have formalized the role the library and library staff will play in a disaster. This is particularly helpful because the library can then ensure their staff and their facilities are prepared and they know what to do, rather than just reacting in the moment. 

Think Creatively

Every community is different and every disaster is different.  Librarians have the information and technology tools at hand to equip their patrons and their responders with what they need to recover as quickly as possible.  Be flexible, be creative, and you'll help your community weather any storm… or earthquake, or tornado, or hurricane, or…