Should books be a part of emergency relief efforts?

A petition titled The Urgency of Reading states that reading and writing are 'essential to healing and reconstruction' after disasters, and the document has been signed by more than 100 writers, literary groups and others.

Paul Chiasson/AP
A petition is promoting the idea that books should be an essential part of emergency relief efforts like those which occurred after the earthquake in Haiti.

Sure, disaster victims need food, clothing, and shelter during humanitarian emergencies – but books?

That’s what a new campaign is fighting for.

Books are “nourishment for the mind” and should be a critical part of emergency relief efforts after disasters like Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, or the Indian Ocean tsunami occur, according to a literary-humanitarian campaign circling the globe.

To date, more than 100 writers, intellectuals, literary groups, and public figures including four Nobel laureates and the humanitarian organization Libraries Without Borders have signed The Urgency of Reading petition, which states, “In humanitarian emergencies, reading and writing are essential to healing and reconstruction.”

“While there is no question that organizations and governments must devote the majority of their efforts to promoting the physical wellbeing 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,” the petition states.

Nobel literature laureates JM Coetzee, Doris Lessing, and Toni Morrison, along with Nobel peace laureate FW de Klerk and authors Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Michael Cunningham, Joyce Carol Oates, and Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, are among those who have signed the petition. The campaign, organized by Libraries Without Borders, is challenging the UN and other international organizations to include “nourishment of the mind” as a fundamental post-disaster necessity.

“The first priority is life, but when life is secure, what can people do if they are staying in a camp?” Libraries Without Borders chairman Patrick Weil told the UK’s Guardian newspaper. “They cannot do anything, and they can become depressed. Once life is secured, books are essential. They're not the first priority, but the second... They are so important. They're the beginning of recovery, in terms of reconnecting with the rest of the world, and feeling like a human being again.”

Weil told the Guardian that the first email Libraries Without Borders received after the Haitian earthquake was a request for books to reopen a destroyed library. Libraries Without Borders not only helped reopen the library, it sent an emergency mission to the disaster-struck country to distribute books and educational resources to displaced persons. The work Libraries Without Borders and other literary organizations did in Haiti were transformational, Haitian writer Danticat told the Guardian.

“I saw personally how much comfort books can bring to young people living in internally displaced camps and tent cities through my involvement with an organization called Li, Li, Li! where Haitian teachers and artists, who were sometimes displaced themselves, read books to children in the camps,” he said. “Though people were in a lot of pain and were suffering a great deal, they were able, for an hour or so, to find some comfort in the pages of a book. I have great belief in the power of words, written or read, to help us begin healing. I have experienced it in my own life and I have also seen it in action.”

That’s why Danticat and signatories like authors Dave Eggers, Marie Darrieussecq, Amin Maalouf, and Amelie Nothomb are challenging the UN to include “nourishment of the mind” in its disaster relief efforts.

“LWB’s years of dedicated humanitarian assistance in Haiti and 20 other countries have demonstrated that books and educational opportunities for disaster victims are essential to healing, rebuilding society and recapturing lost humanity,” reads The Urgency of Reading petition. “...Today, however, the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, published by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, do not include nourishment of the mind as a fundamental necessity in post-disaster zones. In order to challenge the United Nations and other international organizations to implement initiatives that respond to this need... Libraries Without Borders is launching this international call to action..”

Food, water, shelter, and health are “absolute priorities,” the petition affirms, but “nourishment of the mind,” namely books, should be a second measure to help disaster victims cope and move forward.

It’s an intriguing idea – and certainly a provocative one. We’re eager to hear what you think: Are books a necessity during humanitarian crises? Would you sign this petition?

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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