Sunday, February 9, 2014

On libraries and the storm

As a transplanted New Englander familiar with every type of winter weather, I have always dreaded freezing rain above all others. It's far, far worse than snow, I've always told my snow-phobic Philadelphia friends. This week demonstrated why.

In the early hours of Wednesday morning, my house--along with several hundred thousand others--lost electrical power due to an ice storm. At my place, we therefore had no heat or hot water either. I spent part of the first couple of days of the outage at doctors' appointments and my day job, coming home only at night, but then my official days off arrived. Every day, the temperature in our house dropped a little lower: 41 degrees. 40 degrees. 38 degrees. 36 degrees. At which point we had to shut off the water or risk freezing our pipes, and so we finally had to leave the house.*

But while we stayed, my husband and I spent most of our daytime hours at two of our local libraries. We were far from the only ones. The libraries served as gathering places for the community. People warmed up, recharged their phones and computers, exchanged news about which neighborhoods were getting electricity back. (I got almost as much news from the library grapevine as I did from the radio.) We had a heated, lighted place to sit for hours, and unlimited free entertainment in the form of computers, books, music, etc. Nobody nagged us to move along, even though--by our third day without showers--they must've wanted to. The parking lot at one of the libraries overflowed with cars, and people waited outside in the morning for it to open. Both libraries were packed.

We visited two libraries, but I imagine this scenario played out at libraries through the Delaware Valley. In our area, this storm's effects were far worse than those of Superstorm Sandy. We could scarcely go three blocks without running into downed power lines, trees, or both. Stoplights were (and in many cases, still are) out everywhere. People flocked to public spaces like the library, because almost all of us were in the dark and the cold. In our homes, we were piling on the clothing, wearing mittens indoors, cooking on camp stoves on the porch, worrying about the plumbing.

This is what I want people to remember when library funding is threatened. I've heard it said that libraries can be replaced by the internet, but I think that is only said by people who haven't set foot in a library recently. Even when the electrical grid is up and running, there are plenty of people who can't afford computers or internet service at home, who rely on the library for these things. There are plenty of people who need a place to go and read, or take job-search classes, or bring their children to story hour, or take advantage of the hundreds of services libraries provide.

I'm always thankful for libraries--even more so this week, after going without power for about 87 hours. (Some of our neighbors are without it still.)**

*If you wonder why we didn't leave sooner: on Thursday, the power company said we should have power back by Thursday night. On Friday, they said we should have it back by Friday night. On Saturday, they said we should have it back by Saturday night. We kept thinking it would just be a little longer ... also, we heard hotel rooms were almost impossible to get, and information about shelters was sketchy and incomplete.

**This is a writer's blog and my focus here is on the value of libraries. But of course, I am also grateful for the workers who have to be out in the bitter cold working round-the-clock shifts, cleaning up this mess.


  1. Hear, hear! Libraries are awesome places for many reasons, and you've just beautifully demonstrated one of them. Stay warm and safe.

  2. I am glad you have your power back and that you are all safe. Great shout out for public libraries. I have to agree with you, those who say libraries can be replaced by the internet, clearly don't get out enough, much less to libraries.

  3. Please continue to be safe and sheltered. I'm glad you and your husband found a comfortable place for yourselves at the libraries when you were in need of relief.

    I love libraries and think they're one of the most valuable establishments in the community.

  4. I hate that you had to go through this, but I LOVE this story!

    1. Libraries were the silver lining of this particular experience.