By Ellen McGirt
May 22, 2017

Years ago, when I wrote for our sister publication, MONEY, I appeared on CNN to talk about how to rebuild your identity if every piece of your identification was lost and your community was in turmoil. It was after Hurricane Katrina, and people were scrambling to get in touch with banks, government agencies, and insurance providers, offering any proof of self they could.

It was advice I would go on to repeat during every storm, fire and landslide season after that: Get yourself to a public library. In a time before apps and consumer-friendly financial websites (things that plenty of people still don’t have ready access to, by the way) librarians were always there to help with everything from connecting people with the right forms to get their bills paid and claims processed, to finding essential health and legal services in their zip codes. Then, they’d give your traumatized kid a book to help them calm down and sort out their feelings. They’ve nailed the safe space thing.

That was the first time I fully grasped how nimble and responsive modern librarians had become in meeting the urgent needs of the communities they serve. With training, tools, and extraordinary dedication, they’re stepping courageously into breaches, both structural and emotional, created by all sorts of natural and human-made disasters. Hurricane Sandy and Ferguson are two recent examples, but that barely scratches the surface. Their role in modern emergency management systems is a growing field of study, shaped largely by their own efforts to do more, always with fewer resources.

But this recent story from The Philadelphia Inquirer has deepened my already profound respect for the work librarians are doing.

Columnist Mike Newall went to a library in the city’s Kensington neighborhood to check out an unusual tip: The staff there had been trained to administer Narcan, the lifesaving antidote used for heroin overdoses. Philadelphia is attracting an increasing number of “drug tourists” from all around the country, people who are drawn to the unusually high quality of the heroin in the city. This particular library sits on a hill above Philly’s own “Needle Park,” and is bearing witness to a terrible epidemic.

From his story:

They have been using the spray so often that they can tell the type of overdose simply by the sound coming from the lavatory: Heroin victims slide sluggishly into unconsciousness, the librarians have found, while victims of deadly fentanyl collapse instantly, with a thud that resonates through the entire building, which is called the McPherson Square Branch.

The situation has become so severe that the staff now practices “overdose drills.” Who stays with the victim? Who calls 911? Who ushers out the kids? Who waits for an ambulance?

And then, while Newall was on site for the story, it happened right in front of him.

This current responsiveness was born from bold action. The librarians did not wait for permission to offer lifesaving measures, they just went ahead and got themselves ready by asking Prevention Point Philadelphia, a needle-exchange program, to train them in the use of Narcan. Some two dozen librarians from six Philadelphia libraries showed up at the initial meeting, and they all plan to share what they’re doing with anyone who needs it. Newall hopes they do. “If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the opioid crisis – and with Philly on pace for 1,200 overdose deaths this year, a 30 percent jump from last year – it’s that help is needed everywhere.”

Makes you want to hug a librarian, doesn’t it? As information wranglers, digital experts and empathy generators, they are naturally inclusive program designers, who work well in leaderless teams and operate with a clear sense of purpose. (Can they also code? Asking for an industry.) Maybe it’s worth finding out what they need to succeed, and what they can teach us. What would we do without them? Let’s not wait for the next storm to find out.

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