The Importance of Libraries in Humanitarian Crises

Credit: Book Aid

The University of Mosul Library, Iraq is shown above. These charred remains are what is left of the physical structure of a library which, like many others in the course of history, has been caught in the crossfire of conflict. Libraries are easy targets, when hit their absence heavily disrupts local communities and individual lives.

“It is there, where they burn books, that eventually they burn people.”

Heinrich Heine

In this article I’m going to reflect on why in crises, libraries are more important than ever. However before we launch into that let us think about the importance of Libraries in more generic terms:

Why Are Libraries Important?

Libraries, in the sense I am to speak of them, are depositories of knowledge. These are institutions that have existed from the start of civilization which collate information (ie Fiction, Non-Fiction, Documentaries, Maps) in whatever form ( ie. books, manuscripts, even nowadays PDFs) for individuals to borrow and access for free.

Their contents disseminate knowledge about the world around us: from Natural Sciences Textbooks, Scrolls containing the Ancient History of Rome to subjective individual experience of human illogicality in fiction novels.The curation of library collections offer individuals platforms for a robust search for knowledge – distinct from the internet which provides ‘information’ – to allow us to cultivate wisdom.

Libraries are also repositories for shared collective memory, leading to context dependent curation. This curation represent the communities to which the libraries belong, on any scale from a small sixth-form library to the global hub of the Library of Alexandria. Societies need the past to frame their future, and destroying libraries cauterizes societal memory thereby stunting its growth.

Libraries are a place of community collaboration- be it an academic or a social level organisation. As democratic spaces this search for knowledge is further facilitated with company , ie. studying comrades, the librarians and guest speakers at events which take place. Libraries are dynamic communal hubs, which bring us closer to one another. Places where we can sit among strangers in an unsanitized environment to encounter ideas to garner knowledge, and facilitate the development of wisdom.

Composed of far more than just the brick and mortar, library users, librarians and patrons form the community which the existence of the library depends on. Even though the library in Mosul has been destroyed with few documents salvaged, a global effort is going towards restocking its shelves. Like plant cuttings, libraries flourish when tended to, and throughout history it seems a human tendency to cultivate these institutions. They need not be flamboyant architectural structures, they just need to exist in any form for the communities that need them

How Libraries Can Heal

I opened with Mosul’s library, destroyed by conflict. In warzones the immediate reflex for those caught in the middle is to survive. Where the main priority is to live day to day, obtaining essentials such as food and water comes at the expense of an individual’s psychological wellbeing.

This is where libraries come into their element as communal hubs and repositories of books. Books allow individuals to escape their immediate reality, toning down their continually high stress response.Those affected by conflict can inhabit the lives of people living outside their immediate warzone as stories have the power to enrich personal perspective. In reading books and seeing oneself in fictional characters, emotional processing is facillitated- but importantly not a given or completed. Where mental health facilities are not available, or are limited, libraries with the books (fiction particularly) and the community that come hand in hand, can heal by allowing individuals to thrive rather than just survive.

On a more practical note, Medical libraries can provide doctors with valuable information to treat patients and train future professionals. In this way the knowledge encoded in books can save lives.

Charities such as Book Aid who are working hard to supply books to Refugee Camps and Medical facilities , are doing a noble job. All humans have not only a right to survive, but to thrive; the provision of libraries in any shape or form facilitates this. Hence in the absence of such places, due to conflict as in Mosul or natural disasters, there should be a concerted effort to provide such a resource for those who need it most.

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