Just a couple of days after a hurricane devastated Queens’ waterfront communities and left many others without power or heat, Queens Library’s Book Bus rolled up and parked in front of the Peninsula Community Library. In the midst of all that devastation, it seemed almost frivolous. Who is thinking about borrowing a novel when you don’t have food or water? That’s when the true value of the library in the community shone.
That library is one of four that sustained severe storm damage and is temporarily closed, pending repairs. The library was adamant about getting the Book Bus out there the moment the first responders gave the all-clear. The scene was surreal. Broken glass, pieces of wreckage and sand were everywhere, of course, but the most disturbing were the people who were walking up and back along the street, looking exhausted and shocked. They just did not know what to do next.
When the Book Bus pulled up and staff began inviting people in and engaging them in conversation, profound problems poured out. Many, many wanted to know how and where to apply for FEMA grants or where to get emergency supplies or shelter. Library staff had referral information in their hands. Others had more complex needs. A woman needed a supply of her medication. She had just called in a refill to the pharmacy, but the storm hit before she could pick it up and the pharmacy had been destroyed. The nearest store in the same retail chain was several miles away. She had no transportation, no working telephone. Library staff had referrals to emergency medical resources for her. A woman rushed over with her laptop. She was days away from taking the final exam of an online course that was absolutely necessary for her to keep her job. She now had no internet connection. Could the library help? Staff were rigging up a wifi hotspot and told her to come back the next day so she would be able to finish her course work. Someone else said her 8-year old daughter had been re-located to relatives out of the area and was terribly upset, having been uprooted and sent away so abruptly. The mother said the child bonded to the Children’s Librarian. Could the child speak with her? Library staff took the contact information and promised to do their best. And the tears -- people just burst into tears. It was as if they had been waiting for someone to let them cry in a safe space.
By Day #2, the Book Bus had become a depot for loads of donated clothing. The staff set up ad hoc programs for children in the parking lot. Stressed, exhausted children sat on an old mattress listening to story time and doing arts and crafts while their parents rooted through piles of old clothes looking for enough to keep warm. Temperatures drop sharply at night. Another storm is predicted within days.
So here’s the pivotal question: if, as some say, libraries are being threatened by the internet, which website is going to provide service like this?