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Libraries completely missing

Tsunami and Sri Lanka's East Coast

27 January 2005

As bad as anything seen on the southeast coast are the results of the tsunami on the east coast where remoteness and the sheer scale of the damages inhibited obtaining early first-hand facts about the devastation.

After driving in two vehicles 750 kilometres in less than 48 hours across tsunami and war-damaged highways and roads further damaged or under water because of seasonal monsoon flooding and over bridges still under temporary repair and visiting more than 17 library sites senior members of the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Committee are now well-informed about the situations of school and public libraries on the east coast. [The Chairman and Director-General and four senior staff of the National Library and myself, representing IFLA, undertook this heart-breaking journey.]

It must be recalled that this region, even before the tsunami struck, was already one where destruction faced you around almost every corner with vacant shells of houses, factories, cinemas and in Kalkudah seashore hotels overgrown with nearly a decade of vegetation - all the results of twenty years of fighting. Onto this has been imposed the destruction wrought by the thirty feet high waves that in some instances penetrated two miles inland across flat landscapes interspersed with what were picturesque lagoons. As though this were not enough, after the tsunami struck, the full force of the northeastern monsoon was unleashed with cyclonic conditions in the Bay of Bengal causing more damages and suffering with roads inundated and more bridges swept away that, had the tsunami not already set a standard for human misery, would have been cause enough alone for concern and assistance from the world community.

Nevertheless the general picture is of primary aid getting through with vehicles of the Red Cross, Caritas, Save the Children, Medicins Sans Frontieres, World Vision and of course many more from Lankan charities and companies, and with US and Canadian soldiers working side by side with the Lankan army (whose soldiers have performed magnificently) and Rumanian aid workers all working together with Government agencies. Certainly talking with people, and particularly the senior Government Agent in Batticaloa, the Municipal Commissioner and senior education people, local government officials looking after public libraries and principals and vice-principles of schools basic needs of clean water, food and accommodation were well-provided for except perhaps in the most remote communities where roads are entirely destroyed. People are not starving. Now that basic requirements are reasonably satisfied is the time to assist with the construction of lives, businesses, family relations (we saw one woman - from the very ancient Burgher community - accompanied by a few friends who refused to leave the wreckage of her house beside the beach because she wanted to remain there to remember her three daughters who were all drowned). What amazes is the resilience of people to start rebuilding although faced with nothing but wreckage (and there are entire villages on spits of land between the lagoons (which cover much of this part of the coastline) and the sea where not even the foundations of houses can be discovered. (On one such spit, north of Batticaloa, in areas less than half a mile wide, there remains in this five mile stretch not one undamaged building; roads, gardens and foundations are unrecognizable in a wilderness of debris, sand and destroyed trees and where alone more than 3,500 people are known to have perished).

So - NOW is the most appropriate time for libraries and information services to be revived to play their rightful roles in helping these courageous people to reconstruct their communities.

Since IFLANET and the National Libraries (www.natlib.lk) sites began to carry this information the Sri Lanka Disaster Management Committee for Libraries, Information Services and Archives [SL DLC-LISA] has been besieged with offers of assistance. It had not been possible then to identify what is needed, where and in what sort of priority because of the most urgent priority to save lives and stop epidemics (the last, fortunately, most successfully contained). However now, with information collected from local agencies and the DMC-LISA visits etc., in the next few days precise needs will be very clear.

Libraries have been damaged to varying degrees. Some have only lost the books out on loan at the time the tsunami struck and issue records will speedily help their replacement. Others were damaged when the waves damaged the stocks but left buildings intact and furniture dirty but undamaged. They will be relatively easy to rehabilitate. Others are pathetic sights; for instance that of Amirthakali Sri Sithivinayagar School's library where only the floor and two walls remain and the books lie on the opposite side of the road as wet, decomposing and smelling piles of paper. In another, Saint Ignatius, only the foundations and the twisted steel of the roof remains - not a wall, not a chair not a book left.

Amirthakali Sri Sithivinayagar School's library
Amirthakali Sri Sithivinayagar School's library

In such situations everything is required. In two place the Deputy GA couldn't even show us the libraries' sites amongst the complete destruction of everything where only the dying vegetation of people's gardens, holes where the sea had gauged under the foundations and swept the concrete into tiny pieces and where roads, walls, fences - everything - had gone to be replaced by a desert of debris and sand.[Photo 3] Two such public libraries sites cannot even be identified (Passekudah and Kalkudah).

People have asked "what do you want?" Although we prepared a general list of requirements (see 10 January 'Assistance for libraries, information services and archives in Sri Lanka') we were not in a position to specifically advise. Now we can. However in the face of such devastation and needs we could equally ask: "what do you want to contribute?" We can find a place for everything.

The DMC-LISA confirms that monies are the first priority. With them we can immediately rent temporary library accommodation whilst rebuilding takes place: we can place work with Lankan craftsmen for shelving and equipment and buy new books. (To be honest, with the exception of brightly and lavishly-coloured children's books and reference materials, books in English are likely to get little use amongst communities that read primarily Tamil and Sinhala).

Where entire libraries (public or schools) have been destroyed we need mobiles (the roads and bridges are being fast rehabilitated to permit aid to get through). Books can be stocked from this end but stationery and specialist equipment might prove to be more difficult. In line with our policy not to simply restore or to rehabilitate but to use this tragic opportunity to develop services we need computers, terminals etc in the mobiles as we have been assured that electricity and telecom connections can be provided at local stops.

The second priority we believe is to facilitate twinning or adopting a Lankan school or public library on the basis that this would provide not just a one-off relationship through this crisis but one that hopefully would continue to develop after all this is over. For instance to twin a school would permit not only help with repairs etc but also, if computer facilities were also provided, the ability for children overseas to work together with Lankan children which, for the traumatised here, might be very beneficial. We are now in a position to advise if we are told what can be provided: we will find you the correct recipient.

In short - NOW is the time to help. The immediate needs of keeping people alive and healthy are well on-track. What is needed at this moment is help for people to get their lives restarted. This is where library services can be of the greatest help.


Please communicate with:

Sri Lanka Disaster Management Committee for Libraries,
Information Services and Archives [SL DMC - LISA]
Tel: 00 94 11 2687581
Fax: 00 94 11 2685201
E-mail: dg@mail.natlib.lk or nldsb@mail.natlib.lk

and / or with monies
To: Account - NLDSB
Number - 00 25 16 20 07 39 63
Peoples' Bank,
Park Street Branch,

Russell Bowden
Honorary IFLA Fellow
Sri Lanka