We’ve written about how libraries should double as food banks, but did you know that public libraries are also essential to climate justice? As more regions face extreme temperatures due to climate change, libraries are increasingly serving as refuges for heat-vulnerable residents.
For example, when Portland, Oregon hit temperatures of 116 degrees Fahrenheit this summer, around 7,600 people escaped the heat in cooled libraries in Multnomah County. Clackamas County, which sits just outside of the city, designated 21 cooling centers—over half of them being libraries.
Libraries are especially essential for communities of color, where heat disparities, lack of air conditioning, and more frequent scheduled power outages increase the risk of heat-related illness. Libraries are so key during climate crises that the Federal Emergency Management Agency has designated them as “essential community organizations.”
As climate change increases the instances of extreme heat and winter storms, libraries can play a pivotal and lifesaving role in communities across the country, but we need to equip them to serve as the essential public infrastructure they are. Many libraries in the US are more than 40 years old and face their own strains when the weather gets more extreme.
In Seattle, for example, nine libraries have to close due to inadequate air conditioning systems during extreme heat. In Arlington, Washington, the public library closes when temperatures or smoke levels get too high and The Williams Branch Library in Josephine County, Oregon doesn’t even have running water.
Updating existing libraries is a great starting point. As is turning old unused structures, like old department stores, into updated public facilities. Additionally, the proposed Build America’s Libraries Act would make $5 billion available for public library improvements across the country.
Eric Klinenberg, director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU, believes that this funding would make a tangible impact on communities in need. He told Yes!, “There’s so much more they could do, and so many things they could do better if we gave libraries the public funding that they need.”