A Latent Resilience Capacity: Public Libraries and Community Emergency Response

Despite recent shifts toward a more community-collaborative approach to emergency management, little attention has been given to the role social and local groups, including, particularly, faith-based organizations as well as public libraries play in current disaster preparedness and response processes. Whether they confront natural disasters, technological and biological hazards or humanitarian emergencies, many local actors set aside their routine activities and assume crisis-related roles and responsibilities to meet the needs of their communities. Such organizations possess a latent potential to respond, drawing upon their strengths to assist diverse actors with a wide range of economic and social-psychological resources to help address post-disaster needs (Murphy, 2007). Although government emergency authorities play a central role in managing disasters and addressing response and recovery needs, their traditional bureaucratic structure is not always designed to respond to the unpredictable turbulent environments created by such events. This scenario contains at least the potential to elicit new behaviors from local actors situated to respond to disaster-related imperatives that public agencies may not otherwise always be well positioned to tackle.

To date, disaster scholars have largely focused on charting the character of faith-based and local nonprofit organizations in post-disaster scenarios (Auer and Lampkin, 2006; Sutton, 2003). Little analytic work, however, has systematically examined the roles of public libraries in disaster response and planning processes. This essay explores the question of how library managers and directors might perceive their roles in disaster response differently to obtain a better sense of what capacities these local institutions may represent in disasters and to develop strategies by which their leaders could coordinate with emergency authorities to mobilize their resources when disaster strikes.

Public libraries have assumed a variety of roles in the past to support communities responding to natural disasters (e.g., hurricanes Katrina in 2005, Irene in 2011, Sandy in 2012 as well as tornadoes in Joplin, Missouri and Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 2011). The reopening of libraries following disasters has become a metaphor for a community’s return to normalcy and stability. The ocean tidal surge associated with Hurricane Sandy, for instance, resulted in massive social and environmental consequences for the greater New York City region. Despite the destruction, Brooklyn’s libraries sent bookmobiles to affected neighborhoods as soon as flood waters receded, and libraries in Queens used their space to collect clothing donation and distribute clothing items to people affected by the storm. Without formal roles in disaster response, yet with the know-how and local knowledge of the community and its members, various library branches throughout the city offered an array of services, ranging from serving as information hubs and providing access to relief fund paperwork to serving as shelters and food and clothing distribution sites in the aftermath of Sandy.

Although many public libraries address community needs following disasters, their efforts have rarely been recognized and their capacities have not been systematically harnessed. In a study of libraries’ response to disasters in Joplin, Missouri, for example, a local fire chief confessed “he had no idea that the library had been involved in the recovery effort” and a former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director stated that “FEMA did not have public libraries on the radar as a potential resource in disaster recovery” (Veil and Bishop 2014, 722). Although FEMA had officially changed its approach in 2010 to include libraries as essential community organizations in disaster affected areas, making them eligible for temporary relocation funding, libraries have generally not been formally and systematically included in disaster planning policies.

The limited formal role envisioned for public libraries in disaster plans, on the one hand, and their actual responses following disasters, on the other hand, highlights a gap between emergency authorities’ recognition of the asset libraries represent in disaster response and their actual contributions and involvement in the aftermath of a crisis. This unintended mismatch has led to “unplanned” response activities and redundancies while minimizing libraries’ formal collaborative efforts with emergency authorities. Indeed, scholars and government officials have recently stressed the importance of identifying community actors and developing a collaborative emergency preparedness approach prior to disaster situations (Robinson, Eller, Gall, and Gerber, 2013; FEMA, 2011). The severe consequences of Hurricane Sandy, for example, reinforced the need, “to incorporate NGOs, faith-based organizations, and businesses into federal and local disaster plans before disaster strikes” (Bucci et al., 2013, 10). Similarly, in 2011, FEMA developed the Whole Community Approach to Emergency Management: Principles, Themes and Pathways for Action, with an eye to engaging and empowering various parts of the community while encouraging greater awareness among these to work together to deliver disaster relief and recovery services (FEMA 2011).

Local actors, including public libraries, vary in their perceptions and assumptions about their roles and capacity to assist in natural disasters as well as the appropriate forms their reactions might assume (Comfort, 1994). Although anticipating the response behaviors of organizations that do not routinely deal with disasters is a challenging task, arguably one should attempt to comprehend their perspectives and forecast their behavior. Perhaps one way to do so for libraries would be to ascertain how library managers and directors perceive their institutions’ roles in disasters and to what extent they would be willing to act to address community needs during such events, rather than urging them to behave according to a fixed plan developed without their engagement (Dynes, 1983).

Disaster scholars have identified the “response to disaster” phase as a dimension of social structure (Quarantelli and Dynes, 1977). Emergent social structures reflect spontaneous organizational structures such as new programs or the establishment of new relationships (Neal and Phillips, 1988). During situations of collective stress, for instance, individuals and groups become more cohesive; they often suspend their routine activities and assume disaster-related responsibilities to aid those affected by the crisis (Auf der Heide, 1989; Quarantelli, 1986). A central theme in the sociology of disaster literature is that organizations and social roles, during the response stage, often exhibit stability-flexibility dynamics. Responses range from instances of spontaneous activities to provide succor to one or more groups to the precise execution of previously adopted formal plans. Importantly, organizations do not always automatically follow their established routines when addressing disasters since circumstances may demand different courses of action.

Researchers have devoted considerable attention to examining organizational responses to disasters. Less attention, however, has been given in the literature to the role of human agency; that is, the question of how managers and leaders respond to the environments and choices they confront in post-disaster situations. Organizations adapt (or not) to complexities in their environment as their managers and leaders interpret those contexts and determine whether and how to act (Boisot and Child, 1999). Individual leaders and managers possess unique traits and dispositions that allow them to act creatively to meet social demands and to perform activities in innovative ways (Webb, 1998). Put simply, any effort to anticipate the potential decisions and actions of local organizations, such as public libraries, that do not routinely deal with disasters necessitates an understanding of how the managers and leaders of those organizations are likely to interpret their environments and perceive their disaster related roles (Weick, 1995).

In an effort to understand library leaders’ perspectives concerning disaster response more fully, I outline a palette of possible directors and branch managers’ preferred responses in the face of a hypothetical disaster scenario. Table 1 shows three types of responses (ignore, reduce or absorb) that library managers may choose to address following disasters. These represent scenarios arrayed along a stability-flexibility continuum. The extent to which managers might choose to rely upon familiar norms and routines to fit events into pre-existing frames or would draw from other resources to manage emerging needs will reflect their underlying assumptions of their organizations’ appropriate roles in disaster response.

Table 1

                  Library Managers’ Perceptions of Roles and Projected Behavior

Response scenarios Ignore Complexity Reduce complexity Absorb complexity
Changes in Role Conventional Role


Role Adaptation


Role Transformation


Changes in Routine (projected behavior) Conventional Library Routines


Conventional Library Routines

Adding Non-conventional Routines (few)

Decreasing Conventional Library Routines

Adding Non-conventional Routines (many)


Source: Boiset and Child, 1999; Lengnick-Hall and Beck, 2005

Depending on their view of contextual conditions and the decisions they make further to those assessments leaders may choose to ignore complexities in their environments and maintain conventional library roles and activities following a disaster. Alternatively, they might seek to reduce complexity in their environment by selecting certain processes aimed only at accommodating to the complexity in their immediate environment. In such scenarios managers may be constrained by existing administrative arrangements (e.g., whether they are included in local emergency response plans or whether they are well positioned to exercise discretion in response to the conditions they perceive) and are therefore likely to alter their activities to conform to those constraints. Finally, leaders may choose to absorb complexity by creating additional response options such as developing “outside of the box” strategies (e.g., when libraries provide shelters, space for medical care or organize distributions of donations). In such cases, their organizations will adapt to changing conditions, but the processes they employ may not endure beyond the perceived crisis event. For a public library, adopting a strategy of complexity absorption means at least temporarily deploying the organization’s assets as if a first responder. In such cases, the changes undertaken are deliberately transient, which allows for a provisional response to new environmental conditions (Boisoit and Child, 1999).



Disasters provide an opportunity to observe and understand the emergence of changes in organizations and social structures in response (Quarantelli and Dynes, 1977). Recent disasters have prompted a number of social organizations and groups to develop “outside of the box” mechanisms to address pressing community needs. In undertaking those steps and roles those entities have often demonstrated new resilience capacity through the execution of deliberate choices and actions. Since disaster planning is better prepared, in part based on how leaders and managers are likely to act in an emergency, it is of theoretical and practical importance to project the behavior and chart the underlying assumptions of leaders as they make disaster related decisions. Exploring these dynamics is important as their variability suggests that leaders, in this case, library managers, may respond to disasters in a variety of ways. The challenge is to learn how to mobilize and incorporate such efforts systematically into a broader planned whole community response.



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Michal Linder-Zarankin is a PhD candidate in the Center for Public Administration and Policy, School of Public and International Affairs, at Virginia Tech and a Graduate Assistant at the Global Forum on Urban and Regional Resilience.  Her teaching and research interests address inter/intra-organizational behavior before, during and after crises and disasters, with an emphasis on the range of individual, group and community organizations’ responses to large-scale emergencies. Her dissertation, “Lost in the Hazard Cycle: Public Libraries and Disaster Response within the Current Emergency Management Paradigm,” is focused on the role public libraries play in disaster relief and recovery. Linder-Zarankin holds a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Sussex, UK, and an MPA from the University of Missouri, Columbia.

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