The new emergency responders: Librarians

As climate change and extreme weather challenge Puget Sound's emergency services, libraries are increasingly at the front lines of community care.

library with benches in the foreground during the day

Whether in extreme heat or cold, Seattle’s libraries act as a shelter from the elements for many of the city’s most vulnerable. Pictured: the southwest branch of the Seattle Public Library, on Southwest 35th Avenue in West Seattle, on Jan. 27, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

When the Seattle Public Library system closed the downtown Central Library and 26 branches during heavy snow and cold at the end of 2021, it wasn’t the first time it shut these public facilities because conditions were unsafe for employees and patrons. 

But this time, the reaction was different. While library staff members say the decision helped prevent them from risking their safety, library users were devastated to lose one of their only dependable places of refuge during the pandemic. 

In Seattle and beyond, libraries and librarians are increasingly playing a part in emergency response to climate-related events and inclement weather — such as extreme heat and cold, wildfire smoke and snowstorms.

Libraries are often some of the only community facilities that are free to use without membership, and in Seattle they have historically provided refuge to nearby older, lower-income and unhoused patrons who otherwise do not have access to climate-safe buildings. 

“We are de facto day shelters for many of the city’s unhoused population,” said one library employee, who asked that their name not be used because they fear retaliation. 

“Libraries are not generally designed with the intention to be shelters — but where libraries have an appropriate facility and there is a community need, we know library leaders are often asked to help,” said Melanie Huggins, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. 

Seeing libraries as a multipurpose community resource is something some staff members embrace, but others feel this latest trend may have gone a step too far.

“Libraries are seen as places that can and should do all, to the detriment of their primary purpose: to provide access to information,” said Kelly Jensen, a writer and former librarian who recently published an essay in Book Riot titled “Public Libraries Aren’t Essential Services,” which touched on the recent Seattle winter storm. Jensen said after budget cuts for city departments in the 2008 recession, libraries fought to prove they were worth funding, and believes they wound up with responsibilities once reserved for other departments. “We're seeing that now with COVID, but it's even more amplified,” Jensen said.

While some local library employees feel they have the resources to assist patrons in inclement weather, many do not. Not only are library staff members distressed by changing and sometimes ambiguous expectations, but they are concerned about whether American libraries are even physically set up to sufficiently serve as refuges during inclement weather, especially during a pandemic. 

“I think because of the nature of our work we're always going to be in some ways on the front lines of these issues,” said a Seattle Public Library employee, who asked her name not be used because she fears retaliation. “People can just come and be. I think that's an important role we play. But at the same time, we shouldn't be a substitute for other social services.

“COVID has become our new reality over the last two years. Serving the homeless has been our reality. Now it seems like inclement weather will be another conversation to have about how the library fits in.” 

Experiencing inclement weather 

Librarians share information and coordinate education around climate change all the time. But many Seattle-area public library employees say they didn’t expect to be on the front lines of the climate crisis in a work capacity, as extreme heat, cold and wildfire smoke increasingly affect their work lives on top of new COVID-19 responsibilities, like mask distribution. 

Huggins of the ALA said it’s vital that libraries not only have the resources to build and maintain climate-resilient facilities, but also be included in emergency response planning that keeps users and workers safe and prevents damage to library resources. “Extreme weather from climate change can exacerbate problems that some libraries have faced, like leaky roofs, flooding and inadequate HVAC. ALA is calling for federal funding to improve library buildings to better meet these and other challenges,” Huggins said. 

For employees in air-conditioned buildings, one SPL employee said, heat and smoke events aren’t usually huge work disruptions — and can even be appreciated by employees without air-conditioning at home. But facilities without air-conditioning can become unbearable in the heat. Nine facilities in the SPL system do not have air-conditioning, but about 70% do. 

A view into the Southwest Branch of the Seattle Public Library, on SW 35th Avenue in West Seattle, Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

During the record-setting heat wave in June, even air-conditioned branches were overwhelmed. Air-conditioning failed at two branches that were supposed to be open, forcing closures, staff say. They were faced with mediating conflicts between patrons in non-socially distanced settings, monitoring the air-conditioning and finding ways to squeeze more seating into a space not designed to be an event space. All of that came on top of the staff’s regular library work. 

In buildings without air-conditioning, the library system has a hot weather protocol that kicks in when indoor temperatures get too dangerous for library patrons and employees. SPL spokeswoman Laura Gentry said that if buildings see 80-degree temperatures for sustained periods, the system closes buildings and redeploys staff — and, it’s hoped, patrons — to buildings with air-conditioning. 

During the smoke events of 2020, staff were still providing only curbside service to protect unvaccinated patrons from each other. But standing outside to collect or distribute books felt unsafe, some staff say. Gentry said 100% of library facilities have air filtration systems that allow them to safely remain open where heat and the community spread of COVID-19 allow. 

The libraries are not designated as guaranteed cooling or warming centers. But the library is a city department, and the Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan requires city departments to “maintain a basic level of preparedness and response capabilities” and “conduct, or participate in, training and exercises to develop and maintain capability to respond and recover from an incident.” 

However, Kate Hutton with the Office of Emergency Management said, “SPL is not an executive department, so their relationship to citywide emergency planning and response is slightly different to most city departments.” 

Traditionally, Gentry said, the library system shares which branches it will be able to open, and the city then communicates that information to the public. “At the end of the day, because we're not an executive department, it's really more of a partnership and a supporting role,” Gentry said.

In making decisions about whether to close branches, library leadership considers whether there is enough staff available to work, and whether nearby road conditions make getting to the library dangerous (or even impossible, if bus lines stop running). Branches that are closest to public transit and vulnerable communities are more likely to open first, Gentry said. 

“We need to feel confident that our staff can make it to work and make it back home safely,” Gentry said. “The only time I can think of that we ‘opened’ on days we were supposed to be closed was to provide restroom access early on in the pandemic, and we provided that for several months.”

But regardless of how libraries are activated, “the library is going to be used whether [library employees] like it or not,” said Michael Mabe, director of library services in Chesterfield County, Virginia, who researches, writes and gives presentations about the roles of librarians during emergencies

Libraries and emergency response 

Library employees in some other cities are actively taking on basic emergency responsibilities in inclement weather, and they report that this is working well for them, with good expectations and physical and financial support. 

Mabe advocated for his library system in Virginia to be included in Chesterfield County’s emergency service response a little over a decade ago after particularly bad storms showed how libraries can fill voids. The library system has an official leadership role within a county emergency response that distributes shelter, food and mass care, and provides heating and cooling stations during the day and even at night when necessary. (SPL is a listed support agency for the same response function in Seattle.)

Mabe worked with emergency services staff to provide annual emergency training to library employees in management positions at low or no cost to the library. This training, known as Community Emergency Response Team training, includes first aid and also focuses on how to help people who come to the library seeking assistance as survivors of an event. Librarians learn how to provide initial emotional support and assess people for trauma and minor injuries. “We don’t expect [library staff] to go out and save the day or rescue people from death-defying circumstances," Mabe said.

A list of nearby libraries is posted at the southwest branch of the Seattle Public Library on Southwest 35th Avenue in West Seattle, Jan. 27, 2022. (Genna Martin/Crosscut)

Carol Nelson, director of planning and communications with Vancouver Public Library in British Columbia, said the Vancouver system has started briefing frontline staff on how to identify signs of climate-related health issues. “Identifying heat stress in patrons, for example, is something that is new for us, but could make a difference in a medical emergency. It is about knowing when to offer some water and when to call for paramedics,” Nelson said. 

Mabe said that to be effective in “first responder-esque” roles, libraries need “absolutely constant support” from emergency management. Critically, his librarians may volunteer to be trained; people with equivalent emergency training are assigned to offer libraries support; and library staff report additional needs beyond their purview to social services or emergency medical technicians.

Funding and resource concerns

Library staffers in Seattle broadly express concerns about their job responsibilities expanding with the climate crisis (in addition to homelessness and COVID) without funding or resources to support this additional work

“I worry that social services needs will continue to be ignored in favor of using an already existing institution,” one SPL employee said, citing budget cuts elsewhere. “We are also expected to be social services workers, mental health professionals and more, and we are trained and paid for none of that.”

Better integration with emergency response is something that Mabe said has served his midsized library system well. Initially, he heard staff say that these responsibilities weren’t their job, and worried they wouldn't participate. “But we really haven't had any library staff not wanting to participate,” he said.

At this point, Gentry said, SPL has not considered emergency responder training or inclement weather response training for staff since “it would be outside of the scope of work for the majority of unionized positions at the library.” However, a “small number” of library staff were identified to receive incident management training to coordinate with the City’s Emergency Operation Center. She said the library’s director of public services has not heard requests from staff for community emergency response training, but staff members do make recommendations about how to improve operations after inclement weather. 

The Office of Emergency Management's Hutton said her office provides resources and training, but does not “direct other departments’ activities, like emergency planning or training programs.” 

SPL added staff to reflect the sometimes fluid responsibilities of libraries to their communities, like the currently vacant community resource specialist position, which provided social services referrals to the Downtown Emergency Service Center, and a new safety manager role. Gentry said she thinks the person in this role will be important in connecting the library with information about climate preparedness. “But right now, her focus is largely on COVID,” she said. 

“If the city wants the library to be part of an emergency plan, then they need to work with library administration and our union to figure out what is feasible, and it needs to be figured out and put into place long before we have inclement weather,” one SPL staff member said. “And staff should be compensated properly for the role they're expected to play, whatever that may be.”

Library employees say it’s important to them to see more regular communication with emergency and social services employees, while recognizing all of their fields are under a lot of stress. 

Gentry said she’s heard suggestions to allow city volunteer workers access to library facilities when there’s a need for emergency response, but the library is reluctant to use nonlibrary staff, as they might be unfamiliar with a building's safety, security and emergency response procedures. 

Creating climate-safe libraries 

Libraries and their supporters around the country have been advocating for the proposed federal Build America’s Libraries Act, which would pay for upgrades that prepare libraries for natural disasters and environmental hazards, while making internet and other resources more accessible for patrons. 

Funding — for both buildings and employees — can show a community’s priorities. 

“There's a good argument for suggesting to the community that if they do look at [libraries as climate refuges], they ought to invest in strong infrastructure,” Mabe said. 

ALA’s Huggins said there’s no specific national data about libraries’ ability to provide weather refuge. But overall, the ALA estimates U.S. libraries need $32 billion in upgrades, “including $260 million in rural Washington.” 

SPL covered weather concerns in its $102.8 million budget for 2022, Gentry believes. “We're seeing more people that need to escape the hot weather and the wildfire smoke that comes through in the summer,” Gentry said. “We had librarians walking outside just to hand people cups of water.”

The city of Seattle budgeted $1.7 million to add air-conditioning to the northeast and southwest branches, Gentry said; once those two facilities are updated, 80% of library buildings will have air-conditioning.

The libraries that don’t have air-conditioning, Gentry said, are mostly Carnegie-era facilities, which generally are more costly and challenging to equip with cooling systems because of their landmark status. But Gentry said seismic retrofit work at facilities creates opportunities to install more air-conditioning. The Green Lake branch is starting seismic retrofits this year; SPL is looking at doing the same at the Columbia and University branches in coming years, as they have received 2019 library levy money for retrofits. 

Once air-conditioning is installed at these branches, the remaining Carnegie buildings without cooling systems are the Fremont, Queen Anne and West Seattle branches. 

At the same time, some library staff feel that updates to the library aren’t enough to support Seattleites in inclement weather. “We need actual daytime cooling and warming shelters during adverse weather,” one SPL employee said. “There's definitely a place for the library in there, but it shouldn't all be on us.”

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors