In the library on 11th September 2001

Some time ago (i.e several years), I mentioned the experience of working in the library at the time of the 9/11 attacks.  The library serves the main campus of a new university (at the time it was still a “university college” of around 10,000 students, and this would have been just before the start of term.  I had been in post for a year, and it was the day of the annual library staff meeting (a tradition which we no longer maintain due to the perceived need to keep absolutely full service going all year round).  Three staff were left behind in the library foyer to attend to any students or academic who happened to wander in and the rest of us went off to the meeting which was as exciting as such meetings generally are.

Half way through the meeting, there was a change of shift, with a few people disappearing back to the library while those who had been on duty came back up.  Or should have come back up.  Only one of the three made it to the meeting venue, and she looked rather shaken.  When asked what was wrong, she simply said that there had been a plane crash in New York and I’m afraid we thought nothing more of it – plane crashes are unusual and tragic, of course, but not extraordinary enough to interrupt a staff meeting, surely?

The library

The outside of the old library building

It was not until the meeting was over and we returned to the library that we realised how wrong we were.  The first sign that anything was amiss was that the television in the foyer was on – normally it was reserved for Ceefax/Teletext use only, and the volume turned up just once a year (for the Armistice Day silence, which seems wonderfully paradoxical).  A small knot of people was standing watching the screen, and we were told not to go in to one of the offices.  We could soon see what was amiss.  The BBC was showing rolling coverage of what was happening, and the second tower had just come down.  The world was awash with confusion, misinformation and speculation already and it was hard to work out what, exactly, had happened.

One thing we did know was that very few students were on the campus, but the one significant group was a group of exchange students from the United States.  One of those, with links to people who worked at the World Trade Centre, was in floods of tears in the office, being comforted by one of my colleagues, and many of the others had begun to make their way to the library, knowing that two very important things could be found there – people and information.

It’s surprising, but we find that students will often speak to librarians about what troubles them – generally things connected with their studies, but sometimes about life in general.  Perhaps we are seen as safe, neutral people.  On this occasion, though, perhaps it was enough that we were people.  With term not quite underway, the campus had less staff on duty than usual, but one place that guarantees staff presence is the library.  So people began to gather there, in quite large numbers, particularly said group of American students.  For mutual reassurance, and for the chance to talk, speculate and discuss.  Eventually, staff from other support departments came over as well, realising that they could best support the students by joining them where they were.

Information is even more obviously the province of the library, though this was an unusual sort of information for us.  People, particularly the American students, felt the need to know exactly what was going on, what might happen next and what could be behind the astonishing and terrifying events.  This was one time when our specialist knowledge and skills were of no real benefit.  If you want to know what’s happening right now, then everyone with access to media is on a fairly level playing field. Find a news service you trust, and either stay tuned in, or make liberal use of ‘refresh’/CTRL-F5.   Aside from helping you choose who to follow, which can be a rather important decision, there’s not a lot us information professionals can do to help.

On this particular day, I was one of the people assigned to stay late at the library.  In the evenings, we (as most libraries do and did) operated on the lowest amount of staff possible.  On this day, though, our roles were not quite what they normally were.  My colleague who had been comforting a student in the office continued to do the same and similar – she has a big heart, and won the trust of students all the time.  I spent the whole of the shift behind the front counter, with my finger on the refresh button, answering people’s questions.  I don’t remember any normal library things coming up that night, no book renewals or queries about fines, but there must have been.  Life does have a habit of going on no matter what.

By the time the library closed (a bit later than it should have done), most of the students had moved elsewhere.  Those who were concerned about those they knew back home were gradually replaced by the speculators, the people who wanted to know who was behind the attacks and whether there would be more – the people for whom the event was a talking point rather than something with a direct connection to their own lives.  In the years since those events, a seemingly endless parade of conspiracy theories has passed by, but it didn’t take long for those to start.  We certainly had at least one conspiracy theorist in the building that night, long before most of the details became known.  It had been a strange day for everyone, including us.  How often is the library a place that people come together, let alone a place where they come together to talk?

It wasn’t until we had locked the doors of the library that we could begin to react ourselves.  In the hours since the towers had fallen, we had been a source of comfort and information.  We had been shoulders to cry on, sounding boards, listening ears and more.  Now we could be ourselves, start to work out what we thought and felt about events. Looking back, this was one of the strangest days at work I’ve had.  I’ve never felt so helpless or inadequate as when faced with students who felt they had nowhere else to go.  On the other hand, it showed the place that the library has in campus life beyond the provision of books and databases.  Also looking back, it’s the first time I remember following news online as it happened, something which has become almost normal now.  That day is one that most people can look back on and tell you where they were when they heard the news.  It seems entirely appropriate that I was in the library on 11th September 2001.

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