Literati urge agencies to include books in disaster aid

BRAIN FOOD::A charity, prolific authors and Nobel prize winners banded together to appeal to organizations to make ‘nourishing the mind’ a key element of disaster relief

The Guardian, LONDON

Fri, Nov 30, 2012 - Page 7

Books and “nourishment for the mind” should be an essential part of the emergency relief effort when disasters such as the Haitian earthquake occur, according to a call for action signed by four Nobel laureates, Libraries Without Borders and dozens of authors.

Stressing that “absolute priority” during a catastrophe should be given to the “basic needs” of food, water, shelter and health, the signatories to the appeal, led by Libraries Without Borders, believe that “more attention should be given to nourishing the mind as a second measure to help victims cope with catastrophe and move forward.”

Nobel Prize in Literature laureates JM Coetzee, Doris Lessing and Toni Morrison have all put their names to the call for action, alongside Nobel Peace Prize laureate FW de Klerk and authors including Jeffrey Eugenides, Junot Diaz, Michael Cunningham, Joyce Carol Oates and Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat.

Libraries Without Borders chairman Patrick Weil said that the first e-mail the humanitarian organization received following the Haitian earthquake in 2010 was a request for books to reopen a destroyed library. It sent a mission to the country to help Haitian organizations distribute books and educational resources to those without homes.

“The first priority is life, but when life is secure, what can people do if they are staying in a camp? They cannot do anything and they can become depressed,” Weil said.

Despite this, UN guidelines on internal displacement do not include “nourishment of the mind” as a fundamental necessity in post-disaster zones, Weil said, and the call to action of Libraries Without Borders challenges the UN and other organizations to change this.

“While numerous international guidelines for humanitarian assistance do affirm the importance of basic education within humanitarian settings, these guidelines should also include access to books and information as a priority for disaster victims,” the appeal says.

It calls on international organizations to “expand reading, cultural and educational programs, which activate the human spirit and help individuals cope with trauma,” and to “make the provision of access to information and books a priority for international humanitarian relief.”

Oates called the issue “urgent” because “there can be no democracy without access to books and education — no culture without literature. Books are a crucial part of what makes us human, the most precious of our resources.”