Graphic of a diverse crowd

Information at the core of continuity

Libraries play an essential role in crisis situations, and that role is evolving to meet the needs of diverse communities.

Beth Patin is no stranger to responding to crises. In 2004, she received her MLIS from Louisiana State and started working at a library in New Orleans shortly thereafter.

Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit.

“I walked out on Friday thinking the storm was going to hit Florida and I’d be back to work on Tuesday,” Beth remembers. “I never got to work in that building again.”

That experience taught her a lot about responding to disaster. Fast forward 15 years later and Beth is an Assistant Professor at the iSchool, where she researches and teaches crisis informatics and cultural competence. Her work investigates the crucial role that libraries play in serving their communities, especially in times of crisis.

The notion that libraries have a critical responsibility to their communities in times of distress is shared by many, though no consensus exists on exactly what that entails. In 2011, FEMA officially designated libraries as critical infrastructure, yet there has been limited conversation about what that means.

“It’s declared that we are essential,” Beth says, “What does that mean to us? What responsibilities do we have?”

Many of the answers to those questions involve thinking about equitable access to information — something that the coronavirus pandemic has brought to light especially in education.

But to Beth, it’s not just a question of equity. It’s also a question of justice. That means thinking especially about historically oppressed populations as well as populations that are currently being marginalized due to disaster.

We have to consider not only which information is important, but also how it’s communicated to the communities that are most affected by crisis. How are messages represented? Are they coming from a trustworthy source? Is information adequate to keep their families safe?

Shows many different types of people through the windows of their apartments

One challenge that stands in the way of libraries knowing what to do during a crisis is the idea of neutrality. Beth says that too many library organizations have used it to protect themselves from having to take a stand.

“We haven’t really played the role of social justice activists like we think we have,” she said, “When we don’t take a side, we are taking the side of the oppressor.”

In the wake of a global pandemic and renewed public outrage in the face of police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism, it’s more important than ever that libraries revisit the conversation about what it means to be critical infrastructure and reexamine what their key responsibilities are within their communities. That process can start by recognizing that neutrality does not prevent them from actively pursuing equity and justice.

And that’s where Beth’s research on cultural competence comes into play. Part theory, part pathway to action, examining our ability to interact meaningfully with people across cultures can provide a foundation for learning how to best support a particular community’s needs.

We haven’t really played the role of social justice activists like we think we have,” she said, “When we don’t take a side, we are taking the side of the oppressor.

In short, this involves three main components: humility, competence, and responsiveness.

Humility means that there’s no way we can ever know and experience everything. Thus, we’re bound to make mistakes. That’s okay as long as we don’t privilege our own experiences over those of others.

Competence happens when we start to learn about and listen to people who are different from us. By trying to really understand what a community needs — from their own culture, perspectives, and lived experience — we can build meaningful relationships.

Finally, responsiveness proceeds from knowledge to action. When we genuinely listen to the voices of others, we can respond as allies rather than saviors, and we can support the outcomes that they want to see.

Beth says that we need to consider each of these parts in order to create meaningful change. We can’t do the larger work without addressing our own biases first. That requires turning inward and working on ourselves.

What might a culturally competent response look like on the part of libraries? They could serve as a critical communications channel, delivering important crisis messages in multiple formats and languages. They could serve as an information hub, understanding that trusted sources are different from community to community, and forging partnerships to ensure those messages are getting through to all constituents. And they could provide a space where technology and the Internet can be accessed by community members who need it.

The next step for libraries, Beth believes, is to think about their role in the context of providing continuity in times of crisis. Access to information is at the core of that continuity, and it’s the primary purpose of libraries themselves.

We need to think about the services libraries provide and examine how to continue them when resources and physical spaces are limited, unrest or displacement has affected broad swaths of people, or access to infrastructure has become limited. That would shed light on how to best serve the communities most affected by disaster now and in the future.

In the end, it could mean the difference between prolonged crisis and recovery.