International Call to Action
Coping with Catastrophe:
Books, Culture, & Hope in Humanitarian Emergencies
In the coming weeks, Libraries Without Borders / Bibliothèques Sans Frontières will engage international organizations and governmental agencies to reevaluate the role that books, expression, education, and culture play in humanitarian emergencies.
When a humanitarian catastrophe occurs, aid workers, organizations, and governments focus on providing food, shelter, and clothing to victims. They set up medical outposts in conflict zones, drop emergency food supplies from helicopters, and hand out shoes and shirts in disaster areas. Absolute priority is given to what we call ‘basic needs’: food, water, shelter, and health. But while organizations and governments care for the physical wellbeing of disaster victims, little attention is given to human individuality as a way to cope with catastrophe and to move forward.
When, at the request of Haitian institutions, Libraries Without Borders sent an emergency mission to Haiti following the devastating January 2010 earthquake, we were struck by some of the reactions we received in the United States and Europe. Individuals asked us if giving Haitians the opportunity to read and write was really a priority like food and shelter.
In our work in Haiti and beyond, we have drawn inspiration from several initiatives in history. After the First World War, the American Committee for Devastated Regions intervened in France to establish libraries for children as a way of helping them to overcome trauma. The International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) carried out similar initiatives after the Second World War and after the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Founded by Jella Lepman in Munich in 1953, IBBY remains an incredibly important organization working to bring books to children all over the world.
The provision of access to books, culture and knowledge for victims of natural and manmade disasters is important because these allow individuals to reconnect with the rest of humanity and provide them the strength to look toward the future. UNESCO found in 2011 that only 2% of all international aid goes toward education. We agree with UNESCO that education must be available in emergency situations because it allows them to recover “a sense of normality.” We believe also that education efforts beyond formal schools, such as mini-libraries in disaster zones and story-time programs in IDP camps, must be made a priority because they cultivate the human spirit and provide distractions to help disaster victims cope with trauma.
From implementing projects in Haiti after the earthquake and Tunisia after the revolution, we have learned that books and stories have the ability to improve living conditions in the worst situations. We witnessed how stories about mighty lions or funny frogs were able to transport children from dire post-earthquake conditions. They provided escape from the trauma. Ultimately books and and expression sustain human dignity and provide a source of self-worth and identity. In reestablishing culture amid the rubble of disaster, books provide sources of resilience and hope by instilling the conviction that there will be life after the camp.
Believing strongly that dignity through books, writing, and learning should not be denied to victims of humanitarian disasters, Libraries Without Borders is calling on international organizations and governments to better take into consideration the role these play in emergency situations. Reading and expressing must take place among food, water, shelter and health as basic needs and priorities in humanitarian emergencies.
Chairman, Libraries Without Borders / Bibliothèques Sans Frontières
Research Director, National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), France
For press inquiries, please contact Anthony Chase (achase [at] librarieswithoutborders.org)