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?