As someone relatively new to identifying as a career librarian (well, technically, soon to be librarian), people (acquaintances, family members, well meaning loved ones) often make good-natured but snide comments about the libraries being useless, old fashioned, and unnecessary. As every other librarian, specifically public librarians, I find these comments misguided, disrespectful, and shortsighted. Sometimes it’s easy to make light of the situation and joke about needing a master’s degree to learn how to alphabetize books and sometimes it’s best to launch into a 30-minute discussion about the pros and cons of possible RDA implementation. Whatever- besides the "typical librarian" baggage, people largely don't seem to respect civil service type jobs. I'm sure public school teachers have if bad too.
The aftermath of Hurricane Irene brought into focus the social safety net role that the library serves in disaster situations. While the hurricane didn't hit too badly in this area, there was widespread power outages lasting close to a week in some places. By chance the library had electricity and a reliable Internet connection come Monday morning, the day after the storm. While I don't regularly work public services, the absence of other employees hit worse by the storm had me in reference and circulation all day. The crowd of people waiting outside the library before opening was easily three times as large as normal. The phone was ringing off the hook with calls asking if we were open. In addition to the regulars I saw and spoke to people from the city and surrounding areas that had no power and no way to communicate from home. The library was clearly a refuge from the storm damage for those from all parts of the community, local and otherwise.
As communication and interaction between people, even those that live in the same city, has moved to online mediums, the need for electricity and Internet has only increased. The change, specifically for younger people, from direct communication either in person or over means such as telephone or by mail to Internet services has resulted in digital communications as the primary medium of interaction for many. Basically transfers of information. Luckily libraries are all about managing information and can provide the infrastructure to the public. While Internet and electricity can, and should be provided by other institutions during disaster situations, it is fitting that the library should fill the role of providing information resources- whether books or Internet mediated interpersonal communication to the public at large. This is completely obvious to most anyone reading this, however, I don’t think non-library users necessarily think it about.
Disaster situations, such as the recent storm, act as a leveling mechanisms making the normally advantaged, disadvantaged and in need of assistance. The advantaged- those with the autonomy to decide where to go, what to eat, how to communicate, how to live- found themselves without that autonomy. While the need to get online can seem frivolous compared to fresh water and food access- as the primary medium of communication for many it is at the least a secondary concern.
Seeing crowds of new people streaming into the library, clutching their laptops/cellphones/ipads, -data refugees of some sort- exemplified the role of public libraries as safety net for the entire community. People that had seldom visited the library, or hadn’t been since their children were young, seemed genuinely appreciative and relieved. Many asked how much it cost for an hour online- disconnected from the core mission of the public library. I can only hope that the resources provided made as big of an impression on them as it did for me to provide them.
This is one of many situations that exemplify the purpose and the need for libraries. This is what I want to explain to people when they role their eyes about libraries.