COLUMN: Librarians support wildfire evacuees

Anne DeGrace on storytime in the Prince George and Kamloops evacuation centres

By Anne DeGrace

“The most interesting thing is the individual stories,” Prince George Chief Librarian Janet Marren told me. She said after spending a day at an evacuation centre in her city, “I’d go home and find myself worried about all these people. Once you’ve filled out all the forms with them, once you’ve heard their stories, you feel like you know them.”

Prince George Public Library has been hands-on since the beginning of the wildfire season, which has seen 9,000 evacuees take refuge in the city. The library has seen a huge increase in foot traffic as people come to access computers, find information, bring their kids to free programming, and just get away from the heat and the smoke. To regular programming, such as the free, drop-in Summer Reading Club, they’ve added family events such as pizza-and-a-movie night.

But the library isn’t satisfied just waiting for fire-displaced people to come to them. They’ve taken storytimes to the evacuation centres, made sure their “reading without rules” trolleys — books that don’t have to be returned — are everywhere, and issued temporary cards with full privileges to evacuees so that there’s one less barrier for people facing a wall of smoke and an uncertain future.

What put Janet and many of her staff on the front lines was Prince George Library’s how-can-we-help approach, writ large. Full-time staff were brought in, with pay, to register the first wave of evacuees, many carrying on with the work on their own time, because the lines didn’t end at clock-out time.

Librarians are good at helping folks navigate information, solve problems, fill out forms. We do it every day. And so when the emergency began, Prince George librarians were there to get the ball rolling while community volunteers got trained up.

Back at the library they’re there to greet the exhausted senior, the family with small kids. “Everyone is just so sympathetic,” Janet said.

I asked Kamloops Chief Librarian Judy Moore how things were going there. They, too, have seen a sharp increase in foot traffic — Ashcroft and Cache Creek are part of the Thompson-Nicola Regional District Library System — yet everyone takes the extra busy-ness in stride. For compassionate librarians, it can be hard to witness the stress and worry people are struggling with, but “staff have said they feel like they are really able to make a contribution to the relief effort by giving support through the library,” she said.

In Kamloops, too, a number of staff members were deployed to help out in the evacuation centres, and the library has brought the bookmobile around with a roving collection for checkout and plenty of free materials, too. They’ve encouraged folks to come to the library for a cool break and family activities, and they’ve tried to ensure anyone who wants a library card can get one. “We are thinking of expanding our offerings in the evenings we are open by putting out board games, for at least as long as the evacuation orders are in effect,” Judy said.

For a family camped out in a RV or on a cluster of cots in a shelter, a game of Monopoly must be a normalizing thing, a temporary relief at least. It doesn’t remove worries about threatened homes and scattered family members and relocated pets, or the endless waiting. But a place to rest, recharge, and connect in a friendly, helpful atmosphere has got to help.

Libraries are places of refuge in so many ways: we are egalitarian, compassionate, and helpful navigators of information, services, and of a society that barrels along at sometimes breathtaking speeds. I hope that, once the smoke clears and the recovery begins, these librarians will know they’ve made a small difference in a desperate time just by saying “how can I help?”—and really meaning it.

Anne DeGrace is the Adult Services Co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week.

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