Public Library Response to Natural Disasters: A “Whole Community Approach”


Published: July 21, 2013 by Dr. Chris Hagar

This post is about my interest in the response of public libraries to natural disasters; it is a call to action for libraries to become involved in emergency community-wide planning.

Public libraries in the US increasingly play a central role in communities during natural disasters e.g. Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, the tornadoes in Joplin and Tuscaloosa. A recent analysis from the World Meteorological Office (2013) found the period 2001-2010, to be a decade of climate extremes. It seems that further natural disasters as a result of an acceleration in global warming are inevitable – some may disagree! As natural disasters are often local events, local organizations and individuals are critical in responding to them.

The importance of libraries’ involvement in disaster response was highlighted in the US in 2010, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, 2010) changed its policy to recognize libraries as essential community organizations in areas impacted by a disaster, thus making them eligible for temporary relocation funding in times of disaster or emergency. With this recognition, libraries were acknowledged in the US for their potential to play a major role in disasters.

Libraries can play multiple roles in disasters by: directing the many stakeholders in crises, such as citizens, experts and policy-makers, to trustworthy sources of information; as community technology centers where victims of crises can connect with missing family members and friends, access relief fund paperwork, and file insurance claims; acting as distribution centers for emergency supplies, and more.

Recent themes that emerged from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Virtual Social Media Working Group (2013) “Lessons Learned: Social Media and Hurricane Sandy” were the organization of “big data”, the need for standardizing nomenclature, validating and vetting information – all areas where librarians and libraries can play important roles.

Two years ago FEMA (2011) highlighted the importance of engaging all community resources in efforts to improve community resilience and emergency management outcomes. In the document entitled A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes, and Pathways for Action, FEMA recognized that a government-centric approach to emergency management is not enough to meet the challenges posed by a catastrophic incident. The “Whole Community Approach” framework emphasizes greater empowerment and integration of resources from across the community and the establishment of relationships that facilitate more effective prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery activities.

Public libraries are in a unique position to engage in community-wide disaster preparedness and response planning efforts, ensuring that partnerships and plans are in place before a disaster strikes and strengthening community resilience. As a trusted community resource, they are also an ideal position to participate in or lead efforts to develop broad-based partnerships aimed at improving their community’s disaster preparedness plans.

Library leaders need to engage in these types of collaborations, encourage and proactively engage in dialogue, plan with their local emergency management community, and motivate other local agencies to include public libraries in local disaster planning efforts. Librarians can add to the on-going conversation among the diverse group of emergency management stakeholders and consider how LIS professionals and educators can engage in a culture of “futures thinking” as outlined in the FEMA 2030 Report.


FEMA. 2010. 9523.3 Provision of Temporary Relocation Facilities. (accessed 2 June 2013).

FEMA. 2011. A Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes and Pathways to Action. (accessed 4 July 2013).

United States Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate’s Virtual Social Media Working Group. 2013. Lessons Learned: Social Media and Hurricane Sandy. July 18 2013)

World Meteorological Office. 2013. The Global Climate 2001-2010: A Decade of Climate Extremes – Summary Report. (accessed July 5 2013).


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