Everyday public spaces- schools, libraries, stores, transportation ports- have the ability to transform themselves into sanctuaries in times of danger, to serve as a safe place for those seeking shelter. Libraries in particular are a place the public looks to for information and facts, resources, for help solving problems. But what about when the enemy is something invisible, such as disease? What happens when being in a public space aggravates and exposes us to danger? Who do we turn to when so few have the answers? How do libraries help us beyond being a physical space? Here is a look at how libraries still serve the public during challenging times of crisis, and a glimpse of how libraries have helped in emergencies past.
Libraries offer so much more than books, media, computers, and a place to get work done. Expanding beyond just a physical building, libraries cultivate a sense of community; a pillar for knowledge and research, an opportunity to discuss and build ideas, to share resources and learn about art, history, science, math, music, philosophy- to question what one knows. Libraries are vessels, metaphysically and literally, to bettering yourself and others.
"Libraries step in to fill gaps and offer help when normal channels are inaccessible" says Deborah Fallows in The Atlantic's "When Libraries Are Second Responders". In states such as West Virginia, Arizona, and Oregon, nurses, social workers, and other medical professionals have used libraries and their outreach programs to help educate the public about personal health and hygiene. Librarians also help patrons research medical questions when unable to visit a doctor, and even receive Narcan training in order to assist in the case of an opiod overdose. Libraries expanded their hours and resources during the 2008 financial crisis to support local communities in finding jobs and budget personal finances, and to this day librarians guide people through major and minor life events such as planning funerals, preparing for job interviews, graduating from school, and learning to read and write by way of librarians and library volunteers.
Of course, it's difficult to know how to respond and prepare for a situation in which there is very little information. Librarians around the country have teamed up with the American Library Association to devise a Pandemic Preparedness Resource website with up-to-date facts about the virus, plus additional links for local county and state medical and health resources. The website also includes time and true disease prevention tips; hand washing, covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing, how to properly clean and sanitize your belongings, and other simple protective measures against sickness. After all, when there is so much that is unknown, it's important to focus on what we already know.
The spread of disease isn't the only thing libraries are helping the public prevent, however. A note condemning xenophobia and attacks towards Chinese and Asian people is included in the ALA's pandemic response guide, and some libraries around the country have even received racially-motivated complaints. Fighting misinformation of all forms, and protecting all members of the public equally is of utmost importance, and a priority for librarians as "information gatekeepers", insists Lisa G. Rosenblum, director of the King County Library System in Washington. She adds, “When we have these crises, it’s a way to remind the public about what libraries have always done best, which is to share accurate information" (Lara, Ewen. "Libraries and Pandemic Preparedness”).
Monitoring and filtering misinformation is what librarians do best, and they continue to do the work remotely. News Guard has provided a page called The Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center, a resource that collects websites containing false information about COVID-19, conspiracy theories, facts that are not backed up with reliable sources, and includes a hotline for reporting similar content. If our best source of defense is to stay informed, it is ideal to ensure our information is correct before spreading false news. In "Reasons to Love Your Library: Think of Them as Resilience Centers", Catalyst Magazine's Amy Brunvand explains how libraries have proven themselves as crucial public resources in emergency situations and in day to day life. "Before Hurricane Katrina, libraries were treated by FEMA as non-essential services, but after Louisiana libraries played a significant role in disaster recovery, there was pressure to change federal law. Since 2011, libraries have been treated as a priority for post-disaster restoration." Brunvand describes how the concept of "resilience centers", "a place that would be a community gathering place, open every day, welcoming to everyone, staffed by trained professionals, with flexible space that could be adapted for many uses" was conceptualized by sociologist Eric Klinenberg before realizing this space already exists in the form of your everyday public library.
So in a time such as this, let us all be 'resilience centers'- for ourselves, each other, and our communities. Do as librarians and libraries do in seeking and sharing resources, distributing information only that is true and necessary, being open minded to learning new skills and different ways of doing things, and building a future that is informed, safe, and welcome to all.
Image: Bates Hall, The Reading Room at Boston Public Library, 2017, by Haizhan Zheng, Courtesy of Getty, published in The New York Review of Books, April 18, 2019