Social institutions, community ethics, disaster recovery

In the weeks since Sandy, it’s been interesting to see different approaches to recovery work.  A lot of attention has been given to Occupy Sandy and the extent to which some of the organization tools that were able to mobilize people for actions, protests and general assemblies have been useful in coordinating recovery efforts.  At the same time, I’ve been interested in how some of the more longstanding institutions for coordinating community involvement have responded to local disaster recovery efforts.

Take, for example, libraries.  In the week immediately following Sandy, it was interesting to see how three different library organizations positioned their responses to their local communities. On November 5, the NYPL sent out an email to its patron list:

“Since the storm hit, our Facilities team has worked around the clock to clear debris, battle power outages, and repair minor damages to get our branches up and running. By November 1, we had 55 branches open. By November 5, all but four are open, and it is our priority to get those four branches safely opened as soon as possible”.

NYPL went on to say: “In the last week, as our branches have reopened, they have been packed with patrons using our free Internet, charging their phones, reading books, enjoying free programming, or just talking to their neighbors. Library staff — many of whom were redeployed because their own branches were closed — provided increased programming for kids and teens who were out of school, and the system extended the due dates for 390,000 items.”

The NYPL administers branch and research libraries in the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island, one of the city’s most hard-hit areas.  Brooklyn and Queens each have their own administering bodies; regarding the former, the BPL’s web page had been updated with the following message to its patrons:

“Our hearts go out to all of those who have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. As part of the Brooklyn community, we are working to help.  Our staff, many of whom have been affected themselves, are working hard to bring help to those who need it.”

In addition, the BPL listed the services it had initiated in wake of the storm, including bookmobiles to impacted neighborhoods and shelters, pop up libraries, coordinating FEMA information sessions, supply drives and a hurricane bibliography.

In comparing how these to institutions publicized their responses to Sandy, the NYPL emphasized having its branches open as quickly as possible, providing a place for people to go and being a site of resources like information, electricity, online access and entertainment.  The BPL’s messaging focuses less on libraries as institutions and more on services, particularly services that were specific to the storm.  So rather than emphasizing the library as a place that had reopened as quickly as possible to provide resources, the BPL focused on storm-specific services, including bookmobiles, supply drives and bibliographies (I noticed that the first day my BPL branch library was open, it had its temporary display case full of hurricane-related texts).

I’m most interested in the NJLA’s email updates to its members, which emphasized documentation of experiences with Sandy.  In contrast to the NYPL and BPL messages to patrons, it’s important to note that the NJLA message was sent to its members, who are mostly librarians. As Executive Director Pat Tumulty explained in an email:

“NJLA has created three tools to help us capture the story of what is going on with our libraries today as they are helping their  fellow residents cope with Sandy.” Those resources include a form that librarians can fill out to document damage to libraries, a Flickr page for sharing photos of library volunteer work, and a form to document patrons’ experiences with the storm.

Across these institutional reactions, there’s an emphasis on some of my favorite elements of what libraries do as social institutions – reflecting community ethics, acting as a site of DIY education and as a staging ground for local needs or interests. I’m not interested in setting up a hierarchy of which library organization had the best or most useful response to disasters.  But I *am* interested in using the differences between these responses to think about 1) how libraries position themselves as having responsibilities to their communities, and how those responsibilities can play out in different ways 2) how activists can leverage those commitments to local communities in order to form better, more precise actions.  These actions could be in response to disasters specifically, but maybe also community needs more generally. As social sciences research on disasters continues to grow, particularly in the realm of social media, I think it’s important (from an academic as well as an activist perspective) to look at how existing institutions are already responding to community needs, and partnering with them to expand our understanding of outreach, localized ethics and on-the-ground information.

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