When a humanitarian catastrophe occurs, international organizations and governments set up medical outposts, drop emergency food supplies, and hand out clothing in disaster zones. Naturally, absolute priority is given to what we call ‘basic needs’: food, water, shelter, and health. While there is no question that organizations and governments must devote the majority of their efforts to promoting the physical well-being of disaster victims, more attention should be given to nourishing the mind as a second measure to help victims cope with catastrophe and move forward.
Following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Libraries Without Borders (LWB) responded to requests from Haitian institutions and sent an emergency mission to the country. At this time, we were shocked by the number of individuals from France, Europe and North America asking : is giving Haitians the opportunity to read and write, as well as providing access to information really a priority ?
The fulfillment of basic needs is undoubtedly the first priority in humanitarian situations. Yet from LWB’s work in Haiti, we know that access to books and information resources improves outcomes for displaced persons. Books and expression help sustain intellectual stimulation and promote self-worth and resilience amid crisis. Whether through books, computers, legal assistance or training, access to information and cultural resources empowers individuals and gives them the tools to reconstruct what has been lost. Furthermore, libraries can improve communication within communities and among aid workers by providing phones, community mapping tools, and places for family reunification and community organizing. These types of resources can also play a decisive role in restoring a sense of normality in post-emergency situations.
And while numerous international guidelines for humanitarian assistance do affirm the importance of basic education within humanitarian settings, these guidelines should also include access to books and information as a priority for disaster victims.
With the strong belief that books, writing, and learning should not be denied to victims of humanitarian disasters, Libraries Without Borders, through this call to action, seeks to increase awareness about the need for access to information and books in post-disaster situations. Furthermore, LWB calls on international organizations to 1) expand reading, cultural and educational programs, which activate the human spirit and help individuals cope with trauma; and 2) make the provision of access to information and books a priority for international humanitarian relief.