Invest in a library culture of mutual care and support

Disaster preparedness is more than just an exercise in planning. It also involves considering the ways in which library culture and staff capacity contribute to resiliency.

Staff from the Tehama County Library pose for a photo
Staff of the Tehama County Library pose for a photo following the opening of the library's new central branch in Red Bluff.

We asked six NLS library leaders to share their thoughts about actions libraries can take to improve their organizational culture before a disaster strikes:

Build culture every day

Recognize the ways that staff and volunteers support each other and community members on a daily basis, said Tehama County Library Director Todd Deck. “A lot of folks are drawn to librarianship because it’s an order-based system,” said Deck. “But an order-based system can be really hard when you’re in a crisis where there aren’t always easy answers…Instead, we need to cultivate and teach empathy. Celebrate it when you see it.”

Talk about values

Regularly engage staff and volunteers in conversations about personal and organizational values. This is particularly important when new staff members come on board, said retired Napa County Library Director Danis Kreimeier. “When we get a new staff member, it’s my job as director to really sit down and talk to them about our values,” said Kreimeier, “to create those connections and culture of empathy from the get-go.”

Consider how library values will influence your disaster response

Invite staff and volunteers to reflect on how the library’s core values should be put into action during a disaster. Staff members may have thoughts about how flexible the library should be or how quickly to reopen, said Mel Lightbody, director of the Butte County Library.

After the 2018 Camp Fire, which saw more than 11,000 patrons lose their homes, it was important for the library to be as welcoming as possible, Lightbody said. That meant adjusting policies around fines, library cards and fees.

After the fire, “[we] led with the heart and not the rule book” – Mel Lightbody, director of the Butte County Library.

Support staff and volunteer mental health

Multiple library leaders spoke about the importance of strengthening mental health supports before a disaster. “Mental health and disaster psychology trainings for staff and volunteers can help to create a culture of care,” said Ann Hammond, director of the Sonoma County Library.

After the devastating October 2017 Northern California wildfires, the Sonoma County Library expanded mental health training for all library staff, including behind-the-scenes employees, using the Mental Health First Aid model. When the Kincade Fire struck Sonoma County in 2019, library staff were better able to assist patrons and their fellow co-workers.

“Nothing can really prepare you for a fire outside your window, but mental health training was well worth it,” said Jaime Anderson, collection services division manager for the Sonoma County Library.

Library staff should also coordinate with city and county health departments to see if training is available locally, NLS leaders said. Having a local partner makes it more likely that trainings can be conducted frequently and that new staff will not miss out on “one-time trainings.”

Tools & Resources

  • Mental Health First Aid is a national, evidence-based curriculum which trains laypersons to “reach out and provide initial help and support to someone who may be developing a mental health or substance use problem or experiencing a crisis.” Originally offered to California libraries through the California State Library’s Mental Health Initiative.

  • Psychological First Aid (PFA) is a set of evidence-based practices to help reduce distress in the aftermath of a disaster.

  • Skills for Psychological Recovery (SPR): Focuses on longer-term recovery in the weeks and months following a disaster.

  • Both PFA and SPR resources include guides, tip sheets, handouts, sample conversations and prompts. Training ranges from the basic introductory level to advanced multi-day instruction.

  • Training is available online or in-person. Materials are typically free or available for a low cost.

  • RAND Corporation’s report Building Community Resilience to Disasters offers a deep dive into actions organizations can take to improve mental health and resilience ahead of a disaster