Libraries as Resilience-Builders: Advocating for Libraries in Disaster Risk Reduction

The theme for International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction 2020 is straight-forward: it’s all about governance.

Risk, in this context, is defined by the combination of hazard, exposure and vulnerability. These risks can range from fires and armed conflict to natural hazards like flooding, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Of course, the urgency to prepare for these hazards is ever-increasing in the face of climate change.

Governance in terms of disaster risk reduction refers to methods by which public authorities, civil servants, media, private sector, and civil society work together at different levels – community, national and regional –  with the goal of managing and reducing disaster risks.

The UN’s call to action for International Day of Disaster Risk Reduction 2020 is in line with the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (2015). When UN Member States adopted this framework, they agreed on the importance of developing national and local strategies to reduce risk, both addressing multi-hazard, systemic risk, and recognizing the importance of the human and cultural aspects of disasters and disaster response.

As the UN states, “You can measure good disaster risk governance in lives saved, reduced numbers of disaster-affected people and reduced economic losses.” For at least the first two of these values, a human-centered approach to disaster risk reduction is required.

In turn, understanding people’s needs in advance, providing avenues to connect critical information to communities, and the long-term building of knowledge on health and hazards can all have an impact on building community resilience and reducing disaster risk.

As institutions focused on human development through providing access to information, libraries are therefore not just potential victims of disasters, but also important potential partners in any strategy for disaster risk reduction. The question then is what libraries can do to reduce risk, and how can this fit into a larger, multi-sectoral strategy? How can they help deliver on the emphasis in the Sendai Framework on both the protection of cultural heritage and the strengthening of cultural resilience?

The potential is there. As welcoming, all-inclusive, free-to-access public spaces and champions of information for all, libraries can to provide anchors for their communities, building preparedness before an emergency and equipping recovery. Beyond this, collection-holding libraries play a key role in the preservation of cultural heritage, safeguarding it for the future and contributing to a shared cultural identity.

In the spirit of this year’s theme of governance, let’s therefore discuss in more depth some of the ways library professionals can advocate for the value that libraries have within an inclusive, people-focussed disaster risk reduction and recovery strategy.

Be an Advocate! Key Messages on Libraries in Disaster Risk Reduction

We’ve identified several key messages you can use in your advocacy for the role of libraries in Disaster Risk Reduction Policy.

Key message 1: Library resources can enhance health knowledge and disaster preparedness in local communities.

Example: The role of libraries in educating their communities and providing critical information for public health and safety has been seen recently in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. You can see many examples on IFLA’s Libraries and the COVID-19 Pandemic page.

Health libraries are leaders in making reliable information on public health readily available to researchers, government officials, and educators. For example, Public Health England (PHE) Knowledge and Library Services has produced the resource Finding the Evidence: Coronavirus to help professionals working on the pandemic identify and access emerging evidence as it is published. The PHE Library and Knowledge Services have also produced materials for libraries to share with their communities, including information created for children and young people, older people, and people with special needs.

Further demonstrating the role libraries can have in providing essential information for first-responders and humanitarian workers in times of crisis is the guide: Finding the Evidence for Global and Disaster Health, created by Public Health England for the IFLA Evidence for Global and Disaster Health Special Interest Group. 

Key Message 2: Memory institutions like libraries promote the ‘cultural resilience’ of people, communities, and countries – a priority underlined in the Sendai Framework

Example: Following the devastation caused by Tropical Cyclone Pam when it struck Vanuatu in 2015, UNESCO led the assessment of damage to cultural sites, including the National Library and Archive. These institutions are repositories for special collections relating to Vanuatu, including anthropological and archaeological materials, art and arts references, historic and culture records, many works on the languages of Vanuatu, information on oral traditions, and more, encompassing the traditional knowledge of the country.

The assessment highlights the role of this traditional knowledge as an element of resilience. One example is knowledge of traditional building techniques. Assessors found that structures built using local materials and traditional building skills were less affected than those using other materials and techniques. This stresses the value of the knowledge preserved in memory institutions, community facilities, and historical records – they are part of living heritage and culture.

Key Message 3: Libraries have a mission and unique expertise when it comes to preserving their community’s cultural heritage and make it accessible to the public, in order to inform and inspire future generations.

This role should be taken into serious consideration in national and regional risk reduction strategies.

Example:  In the recent report of the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights on cultural rights and climate change, Special Rapporteur Ms. Karima Bennoune visited the island of Tuvalu in the South Pacific. The country’s only library sits 20 metres from the shore and is threatened by sea level rise.

The collection contains irreplaceable historical documents as well as meteorological and tide records that are critical tools for climate research. The librarian is determined to save this collection, as its loss would impact Tuvaluans as well as the collective knowledge of mankind.

According to the report, a Tuvaluan official asked: “If we are not here anymore, what will happen to our culture?”

The Special Rapporteur’s report highlights this critical intersection between climate change related risk, cultural heritage protected within memory institutions, and community identity. 

Key Message 4: Libraries have an important role as places of refuge and secondary emergency service providers.

Example: The Librarian’s Disaster Planning and Community Resiliency Guidebook, published by New Jersey State Library (2017) described libraries as an “untapped community resource” in the immediate aftermath of disasters. After Hurricane Sandy devastated parts of New Jersey in 2012, local libraries provided gathering spaces, essential services, and community support.

The day after the storm passed New Jersey libraries rallied, and were the places residents flocked to as they began to put their lives back together. Libraries, even those without power, were pressed into service as ad hoc community recovery centers, providing a respite from the storm for shattered communities.

Libraries played a similar role as community gathering places and regional assistance centers during California’s devastating 2018 wildfire season.

What Can You Do?

IFLA’s briefing on Libraries and the Sendai Framework recommends several steps for library advocates to get more involved in disaster risk reduction on the national and local level. These include:

  • Find out if your country has a disaster risk reduction strategy. If it does, does the strategy include cultural heritage, or the role of libraries in sharing health information or supporting communities?
  • If the strategy does not mention the work of libraries, use advocacy tools like this article and IFLA’s brief on the Sendai Framework, along with your own experience, to argue for them to be included.
  • If there is no strategy, are there plans to create one, in line with the Sendai Framework? Can you ensure that libraries and their work is included?
  • Get involved in your national Blue Shield Committee or contact your local UNESCO office to find out what they are doing.

Enhancing Disaster Risk Reduction in Libraries

One thing that libraries at all levels can do to enhance their role in Disaster Risk Reduction is to develop workable, realistic plans for their own disaster preparedness, risk reduction, and recovery.

The following tools are a good place to begin:

  1. IFLA Principles of Engagement in library-related activities in times of conflict, crisis or disaster

The principles of engagement advise IFLA and its members on how to monitor areas at risk, advocate for and raise awareness about disaster prevention. When disaster strikes, the Principles guide recovery activities, and advise members if and how to engage.

  1. Disaster Preparedness and Planning: A Brief Manual

This manual takes the user through each step of the disaster planning process: risk assessment, prevention and protection, preparedness to cope with possible disasters, response when disaster strikes, and recovery.


In the words of the UN: “It’s time to raise our game if we want to leave a more resilient planet to future generations”. Libraries and librarians have a key role to play in effective, inclusive, and human-centred governance for disaster risk reduction.

Do you have an example of a library assisting its community before, during, or after a disaster? Let us know! We’d love to hear your stories.


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