Emergency! How Queens Library Came to Patrons' Rescue after Hurricane Sandy

By Epps, Lisa; Watson, Kelvin | Computers in Libraries, December 2014 | Go to article overview

Emergency! How Queens Library Came to Patrons' Rescue after Hurricane Sandy


Epps, Lisa, Watson, Kelvin, Computers in Libraries


In fall of 2012, unexpected tragedy begat an unexpected gift for the information-hungry people of Queens, N.Y. In 2013, Queens Library received a donation from Google of 5,000 Nexus tablets to be circulated free to the community via library card. This donation was facilitated by Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York's Department of State. With the tablets came the challenge of how to manage, safeguard, and distribute valuable electronic devices without adding significantly to the workload of the library's staff members. It also presented the opportunity to shape the experience of new users with limited digital literacy.

Hurricane Sandy devastated the shorefront communities in Queens in late October 2012. The worst-hit area was the barrier beach known as the Rockaways (or Rockaway Beach). The narrow peninsula is only accessible by two causeways. It is barely half a football field wide from ocean to bay. Four feet of storm surge breached much of the peninsula. Homes and businesses were destroyed. Food and drinking water were not being delivered to the area. Retail stores, healthcare facilities, banks, and schools were all gone. Transportation, electricity, and basic services took weeks to be restored. Telecommunications were almost nonexistent. Families had to relocate. Those who were able to stay suffered physically and emotionally. Four public libraries--among many other buildings--were destroyed.

Aside from first responders, Queens Library was the first back on the scene when the sun came out. Within 2 days of the storm, the library in Far Rockaway, N.Y., opened without electricity to distribute emergency supplies. Within 3 days of the storm, the mobile library parked in another location 2 miles away, armed with outreach staff members and information sheets to help residents access emergency resources.

The Rockaways were largely economically disadvantaged before the storm. As is common in low-income communities, educational attainment, digital literacy, and technology access were low. Aggravating the situation after Hurricane Sandy, some of the telecom providers did not rebuild quickly, looking for more weather-resistant alternatives to damage-prone cell towers and aboveground cables.

The challenges--Tablets require Wi-Fi for full functionality. Wi-Fi was not easy to find or afford in the storm-damaged communities. Additionally, such a large number of tablets had the potential to be an enormous maintenance burden on the staff members who circulate them, as well as for the IT staff members who maintain them.

The opportunities--The opportunity to bring badly needed resources and skills to the community was irresistible to Queens Library. The library had long wished to circulate tech devices via library card, but could not have afforded to purchase so many or to support and maintain them if it had to be done one device at a time.

Queens Library innovated its Mobile Discovery and Delivery Platform. It is a customized interface for computer tablets that has a simplified customer interface to make the tablets useful with or without Wi-Fi access. It is easy for experienced users or those with little or no digital literacy to use. The platform provides curated information on select topics (education, job-search information, healthcare resources, and information for people who have newly immigrated to America). On the library-facing side, it is standardized so library staff members are always working with a similar device. It makes mobile desktop management secure and manageable for staff.

When news arrived about the donation of the tablets, library staff members began discussions of what, philosophically, was going to be lent. Most buyers of mobile technology are purchasing a device's potential. They have a gadget that is capable of doing thousands of things. They load it with whatever apps will serve what they expect to do and will reshape the experience as time goes on, based on changing needs and changing technology. …

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