November 26th, 2012

"Still There for Them": Post-Sandy Libraries and the Permanence of Mobility

The New York Times has a story today about how the Queens Borough Public Library is adapting its services to the Rockaways after the devastation wrought by Sandy:

The Rockaways still look like ghost towns. But the community libraries are there — if only in the form of a bus, parked in front of the gutted, muddy Peninsula branch. Days after the storm laid waste to four Queens Borough Public Library branches in the Rockaways, a colorful mobile library bus has hummed just outside its former location on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, offering warmth, power outlets, emergency information and books.

It is clear that this reliability, as much as the services themselves, have been crucial for residents whose everyday lives are now marked by a sort of messy, difficult uncertainty. “The library is consistent — it’s in the category of post office,” one resident told the Times. “So it’s comforting that the library is functioning and open.”

And when Christian Zabriskie, with Urban Librarians Unite, wrote up the Queens post-Sandy mobile program for the LibraryLab at Boing Boing, he, too, emphasized constancy and presence:

These are all the direct benefits, but there are many intangibles as well. Everyone knew that, even at their lowest point, the library was still there for them. Some volunteer librarians from Queens were able to do a storytime at a relief distribution point. It’s strange to tell stories in the open air, with children sitting on matteresses in the dirt, while their parents scramble for food and blankets around you—and incredibly inspiring. It was a moment of normalcy, of comfort, of safety.

There’s a fantastic, touching irony to the fact that what offers this consistency, this reliable and continued service, is a bookmobile, the very point of which is, largely at least, its mobility. The library can remain present because the bookmobile isn’t stationary. Its impermanence has made it more reliable that bricks and mortar.

(This isn’t, by the way, the first time the Queens Borough Public Library has used bookmobiles to respond to change—though that change has tended to be social, not natural. As I wrote about almost exactly a year ago, the library used a bookmobile in the late 1960s to reach African American teenagers and take part in the rapidly shifting politics of the moment.)

Photo from the New York Times

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This is a site about information in motion.

I'm Derek Attig, a director of communications at a non-profit and scholar of media history and American Studies. I am writing a book about bookmobiles in America.

I was a 2012 Google Policy Fellow. I'm also a contributor to Book Riot.

You can also follow me on Twitter @bookmobility or explore the menu tabs at the top of the site to find syllabi, links, and other information.

Comments? Questions? Ideas? Contact me at derekattig[at] or @bookmobility


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