ATG Article of the Week: Libraries and Pandemics: Past and Present

by | Apr 19, 2021 | 0 comments

Libraries and Pandemics: Past and Present appeared in JSTOR Daily last week. Written by Julia Skinner it describes how the 1918 influenza pandemic had a profound impact on how librarians did their work, transforming libraries into centers of community care.

“In 1918, World War I was coming to a close, and widespread changes were afoot. It was in some ways a moment similar to today: rapid technological development brought sweeping changes to workplaces and homes. Fights for labor and voting rights were underway. Thenin the spring, a pandemic began to sweep the globe, killing millions. Libraries across the U.S. helped people stay informed, entertained, and cared for as they disseminated information and resources, shifted their services, and re-imagined how they brought collections to the communities they served.

Public libraries in the United States started to proliferate in the late 1800s and early 1900s, often founded by women’s clubs and other social groups seeking to benefit their communities. Their early focus was on classic literature, which was thought to improve and transform the reader. However, thanks in part to librarianship during the pandemic , a shift occurred after World War I towards “useful information”, and with that shift came a focus on readers’ needs and interests.

In 1918, when the pandemic hit the United States, many libraries temporarily closed. Some libraries had existing policies for dealing with materials and quarantined patrons after smaller outbreaks, but few were prepared for a disease outbreak at a large scale. At the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Public Library, for instance, ill patrons were still allowed to browse and borrow prior to 1918, a policy that was quickly reversed and never re-adopted.

International health guidelines from 1921, drafted in the wake of the Influenza virus, explicitly note the importance of social distancing and closing public gathering spaces. During the pandemic itself masks were mandated in public spaces, including libraries. Libraries quickly shifted focus to protect public health, limiting programing while still getting materials to readers, who demanded books in ever greater numbers while stuck at home…”

(Please click here if you are interested in reading the entire article.)

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