As the disruption of schools in the wake of Hurricane Sandy continues to evolve—with 44 buildings in New York City sustaining severe damage—school librarians have stepped up to do their part. From educators reaching out to offer donations to those affected by the crisis, to librarians compiling resources to give emotional support to their students, the library sector is serving the community in this time of need.
Because libraries have a social function as well as an educational one within the school, many librarians will face unique challenges in the coming weeks, according to Meghann Walk, a librarian at Bard High School Early College Manhattan. She’s concerned about how the hurricane will affect her students. As BHSEC Manhattan is located in Zone A (a mandatory evacuation area), the school will temporarily relocate to its sister school, BHSEC Queens in Long Island City, about six miles away.
Walk is keenly aware that students will be spending more time gathering in the library to share their experiences, but she also must ensure that they adhere to their schoolwork after a week of missed classes. “It’s going to be even more difficult than usual to figure out how to balance the ‘shushing’ librarian that helps students focus on their studies, and the ‘free range’ librarian that lets students engage in whatever (respectful) conversation they see fit,” says Walk.
Listservs were a godsend, enabling many librarians to communicate with each other during Sandy, including Andrea Swenson. A middle and high school librarian at East Side Community School, located on East 12th Street. Swenson has had experience with evacuations, as her school relocated to P.S. 1 and Norman Thomas High School in September as a result of structural damage. Swenson reached out over NYCSLIST, a listserv for New York City school librarians, in order to offer advice to those confronting the daunting task of moving to other buildings. Because librarians are members of the faculty who know most students, she says that they can support the emotional needs of students going to a school in a new building or neighborhood. Simply being visible and engaging with students one-on-one can be a comfort during an upsetting time. Swenson says that librarians “are in a unique position to support the community…[and] to provide…stability and…a friendly face.”
Other librarians support a sense of community even outside of their school environments. Margaux DelGuidice found that the Freeport Memorial Library in New York’s Nassau County, where she works part-time as a children’s services librarian, was a place of refuge for those affected by the hurricane. DelGuidice, who also serves as the librarian at Garden City High School, braved dangerous road conditions to make it to the public library on the evening of October 31. That night, the library was packed, with hoards of people crowding in to watch news updates on television or to take advantage of the available WiFi.
DelGuidice also described the vital social role of the Freeport Library, where many local residents come for English lessons. These patrons, in particular, she says, greatly appreciated having access to information from a trustworthy, authoritative source during such a frantic, frightening time.
DelGuidice also related a story of two boys in costumes who arrived with their father after trick-or-treating. Instead of asking for candy, the children gave staff members some of their own treats, and their father told the librarians, “Thank you for being here.”
Like Walk and Swenson, DelGuidice anticipates her school’s library filling an important need as students return to classes. The library is generally a hub of activity for her students, with hundreds visiting each day, and DelGuidice welcomes the opportunity to share useful information with her students and their parents, such as where to go for food or water distribution.
At the Bank Street School for Children, a private preK to eighth grade school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the library offered childcare on Friday, November 2, to local parents who needed to go to work. Librarian Allie Bruce organized read alouds of several books by Maurice Sendak. Older children participated in informal discussions about censorship of Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen (Harper & Row, 1970), and helped read to the younger kids.
Cheryl Wolf, a school librarian, has received an outpouring of support after Sandy. Her library serves both the Neighborhood School and P.S. 63, two elementary schools in the same building located on East3rd Street. Though she still hasn’t been able to assess damage to her library, Wolf has already received offers of book donations from a group of teachers from across the country she had met at a recent National Endowment of the Humanities seminar.
Librarians have also used NYCSLIST to brainstorm ideas for relevant materials. Wolf already has several books that she’s planning to use with her elementary school-aged students, such as Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery’s Two Bobbies (Walker, 2008), Isabella Hatkoff’s Owen and Mzee (Scholastic, 2008), (picture books about animals who have survived disasters) and Myron Uhlberg’s A Storm Called Katrina (Peachtree, 2011). She also plans to create a bookmaking station in her library to give students the opportunity to write about hurricane experiences.
Overall, these librarians have worked to establish a support network in a time of crisis, both for each other and for their patrons. “I think people were just glad to have that human connection,” says DelGuidice, “someone to give them accurate information about the recovery efforts and assistance with deciphering all that happens next.”
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