Remembering 3.11: Library after the disaster

By | October 14, 2014

The Warburg Library was founded by Aby Warburg and is known for its unique classification and the collection which reflects who Aby Warburg had been. Most libraries have a systematic order – they’re organized thematically or alphabetically — but the Warburg Library is different. “Warburg’s system was closer to that of poetic composition,” remarks Alberti Manguel (1). The library is an embodiment of Warburg’s memory. 

The Prelinger Library is similar in its idiosyncrasies. It has a physical collection and online resources. It also has its own classification system, which reflects its specific conditions. The collection is not a general-interest research collection; rather it is Rick and Megan Prelinger’s combined areas of particular interest. “What’s most interesting to us is to build our own very specific collection, and doing so model ways of collection-building that could be useful to other people,” says Megan Shaw Prelinger (2). 

These two libraries are unique and unorthodox in regard to their collections and systems, which reflect their creators’ private memories, interests, and experiences. There are other ways that libraries can incorporate the personal and affective, if not within the overall collection organization itself.

Today, I will discuss the libraries that were affected by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster that occurred in Japan. Although these disasters destroyed and damaged many libraries in northeastern Japan, some libraries and associations have begun work to repair and restore these important community centers. They are not only restoring libraries to the way they were before, but as is the case with Sendai Mediatheque, they are founding centers to record, collect, and preserve people’s memories of the disaster, and they’re holding discussion meetings to help people cope with the aftermath of the disasters. The library, as an institution that is open to everyone, has responded to the unprecedented scale of this disaster. By examining how libraries coped with the situation after the disasters in Japan, it is apparent that libraries function as an integral part of the community and played a significant role after the disaster. As a result of serving these social roles, the library now has a unique collection consisting of people’s memories and experiences of, and reflections on the disaster.

I have always been fascinated and inspired by the moment when people reflect on their thoughts and take action. The 2011 disaster has changed the lives of the Japanese people in many ways and caused them to start questioning how they are going to live in the current situation. Now people are struggling, facing reality, and responding in the aftermath of the natural disaster. However, I think it is important not only to remember what happened, but also to remember that the disasters, despite their horrors, also offer a chance to change society.

The Great Earthquake, Tsunami and Nuclear Disaster

On March 11, 2011 at 2:46 PM, the great earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred in Japan. It was the fifth strongest quake in the world since 1990, and a number of tsunamis hit and swept through coastal cities along the eastern edge of Japan. The nuclear power plants in Fukushima, located on the Pacific Ocean, were automatically shut down following the earthquake. The resulting tsunamis struck the reactors and destroyed their diesel backup power systems, leading to three large explosions and radioactive leakages. According to police reports, 15,889 people died, 2,601 people are still missing, and 127,367 houses were destroyed (3).

Libraries in Tohoku

The earthquake and tsunami destroyed some libraries and their buildings. As Miura, a chair of the international relations committee at Japan Library Association, reported, five public libraries and a number of school libraries were completely destroyed by the tsunami (4). Although a lot of libraries were forced to change their operating hours or close temporarily, many have lent their books and materials to disaster shelters and other unaffected libraries. The Japan Library Association has been actively working to restore the libraries and support people in affected areas by delivering books, reading books to children, repairing books, and providing Bookmobiles. 


Sendai Mediatheque

Sendai Mediatheque is a public institution located in Sendai prefecture, a part of the Tohoku area, which promotes cultural activities and provides access to related resources. The building has seven floors, including galleries, theaters, and a library. It offers programs (exhibitions, screenings, workshops and projects) and in-depth/up-to-date cultural resources (digital archives and library books). It is a place where people not only use, learn, and get resources but also produce and exchange them.

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Sendai Mediatheque was also affected by the March 11th disaster. Three hundred people, including staff and visitors, were evacuated from the building. One of the windows was shattered, the ceiling on 7th floor fell down, and the books and materials were scattered off the shelves. (Most governmental institutions didn’t show the public the actual situation, rather they showed how they were dealing with the situation by sharing what they were doing on their website)

On March 14, electricity was restored in the area, and a temporary office was opened on the 1st floor of the building on March 16th, five days after the disaster. The emergency website, where staff made announcements for users and recorded their situations and activities, was created on the 28th. On the 29th, librarians and staff started cleaning up, but on April 7th another big earthquake occurred, and the books fell off the selves again. On April 9th, a Bookmobile started operating by the building as a temporary library and provided book lending and return services. It contained about 3,500 books include children books. On May 3rd, the library reopened its doors and held talk events “Arukidasu Tameni (getting back on their feet),“ including book readings and exhibitions related to the disaster, to bring people together and help them cope with the aftermath.


However, the institution still had serious damage and took nearly a whole year, after two months of closure, to fully reopen. Sendai Mediatheque strove to respond to this unprecedented scale of disaster. It has established a recording and archiving project called  “Center for Remembering 3.11″ and started discussion meetings called “Thinking Table,” to help people respond to the disaster.

The Center for Remembering 3.11

The Center for Remembering 3.11 (recorder 311) is founded “to encourage us all to think together about the enormous impact of the Great East Japan Earthquake and to help us set out on the long road to recovery.” The multimedia studio in the center is open to citizens, experts and staff who wish to create media to share their experiences and memories. People can write, edit videos, photos, and sounds and distribute their work on the center’s website. We can browse the archives, which contain observation photos, texts, sounds and videos from citizens, along with interviews and stories of the disaster. The Center recently announced that the project is being run in cooperation with the National Diet Library, and these archives can be searched from within their system.

recorder 311 Stories Series

The Center is unique because its collection is a collection of people’s memories and experiences. As the Warburgs library reflects his history and memory — who he had been and how he had experienced his matters, the Center reflects how the people has experienced and responded to the disaster.

When Alex Wright talks about special libraries, he points out the librarian becomes a “knowledge worker.” (5) And as Ethel Johnson wrote in 1915: “The main function of the general library is to make books available. The function of the special library is to make information available.” (6) Now, libraries gather information from outside and also collected data from inside, and it became a place that produces information. Sendai Mediatheque goes beyond that because the library is also part cultural center, and it has established a precedent for how disasters can be handled by libraries in the future.

Work Cited
1. Alberto Manguel, “The Library as Mind” The Library at Night (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2006), P.204.
2. Rick Prelinger and Megan Shaw Prelinger, “The Library as a Map: An Interview with Rick Preligner and Megan Shaw PrelingerContents 5 (2013).
3. National Police Agency, “Countermeasures for the Great East Japan Earthquake(NPA)” (as of September 11, 2014).
4. Taro Miura, Libraries Situation after the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami (2011)
5. Alex Wright, “The Industrial Library” In Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), P.181
6. Alex Wright, “The Industrial Library” In Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), P.180

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