Proactivity, Resilience: Washington Libraries on the Front Lines of COVID-19

In Seattle, WA, considered by many to be Ground Zero for the coronavirus in the United States, directors have have been modeling how libraries can deal with a public health crisis calmly and compassionately. 

enlarged image of coronavirusOn January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, commonly known as the coronavirus, a public health emergency of international concern. Six weeks later, WHO upgraded its status to a pandemic, as the virus first detected in Wuhan, China, began to spread across the globe. At press time, 19 states had declared states of emergency in response to the outbreak of COVID-19.

To contain its spread, conferences, festivals, universities, museums, libraries, and public schools are closing, discouraging large gatherings of people, and canceling all nonessential meetings. Last week, the City of Austin, TX, canceled the South By Southwest festival, which draws more than 100,000 people each year, after declaring a state of emergency. On March 12, Disneyland, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Library of Congress announced closures. All major league sports have been suspended.

In Seattle, WA, considered by many to be Ground Zero for the coronavirus in the United States, Seattle Public Library Executive Director and Chief Librarian Marcellus Turner announced the library would be suspending its programs for the public through March while keeping the Central Library and its branches open, and then—as of March 12—stated that the library would close.

In a statement, Turner wrote, “Decisions like these do not come easy, as it means a temporary loss of access to the in-person learning services and gathering spaces the Library is known for providing to so many in our community. However, this does not mean a complete shutdown of Library services. We will continue to provide the many digital services you have come to love, such as e-books and e-audiobooks; streaming movies, TV and music services; free access to magazines and newspapers; and more. Our Ask Us reference question platform, which can be accessed online and or by phone, may experience some downtime as we work to enable our staff to do this work from home.”

As of press time, Lisa Rosenblum, executive director of the nearby King County Library System, is still keeping all of its 49 locations open. “The word of the day is resiliency,” said Rosenblum. “They don’t teach you this in library school.”

Libraries beyond the Pacific Northwest are beginning to close entirely. For the latest updates, see InfoDOCKET for Library-Related Special Event Cancellations and Changes Due to COVID-19 Concerns.

 

LESSONS FROM THE FRONT LINES

Turner and Rosenblum share a unique vantage point, having been on the frontlines of COVID-19 for several weeks, and have been modeling how libraries can deal with a public health crisis calmly and compassionately. Both libraries have risen to the challenge.

Rosenblum is a seasoned library leader, but has been challenged by the lack of clear, consistent information about COVID-19 and the response to it. She’s been actively seeking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the local county health department, but since the coronavirus is an opportunistic, moving target, it’s been tricky to nail down answers. Librarians have a vital role to play during this time of information scarcity and proliferation of misinformation. “It’s a big opportunity to show how important libraries are,” reminded Rosenblum, and to remain calm and counter any misinformation.

“As is our normal role and work, public libraries are places that both the public and civic agencies and administrations can turn to for information,” said Turner. “Our goal is to be as thorough as we can in our research in order to provide as much information as possible. And, of course, in matters of health and safety, such as the situation we are experiencing now, we want to be efficient and current.”

Georgia Lomax, executive director of the Pierce County Library System, WA, recommends that any libraries in areas that don't yet have confirmed cases make time to prepare. In January, she coordinated with the Pierce County Health Department, and revisited the protocols the library had put in place during the H1N1 outbreak. Lomax had the foresight to create a risk management team, which “had been thinking of earthquakes, volcanoes, and zombie apocalypses.” By having a team of dedicated professionals in place who were already thinking about worst case scenarios, the library was able to move quickly. “I’ve been really impressed with how well staff has been taking a volatile situation and remaining calm, and thinking about why libraries are here and what is the role we can play in the times of need,” she told LJ. The risk management team identified key research priorities, and thought about possible scenarios—including if the library needed to close, or if they closed to the public but staff was still able to work. What helped shape the library’s response was making time to identify the information needed to prepare for whatever came.

“Besides making sure people know where they can turn for accurate, reliable information, one of the things we do by not overreacting or jumping further down the disaster scenario than where we really are, we give people confidence,” said Lomax. “We’re open and operating as normal. People have use of our computers, we have programs. We may do a few things differently – you might see us wiping down the interactive stations in the Children’s Department and other surfaces, but we’re here, we’re open, we’re doing business—and we’ll continue to do that until there’s a reason not to.”

 

EDUCATING THE PUBLIC 

One of the challenges of the current outbreak is identifying accurate information to share with the public. Traditional sources, like the CDC, are being instructed by the current administration to downplay both the numbers and guidance in how to handle this public health crisis. In 2018, federal funding cuts meant the Centers for Disease Control downsized its epidemic prevention activities in 39 out of 49 countries where it operated—including China.

So where can libraries find accurate information about COVID-19? Here are some trusted sources to turn to:

The World Health Organization has been routinely providing reliable information and instruction for the public.

Despite the concerns raised above, the Center for Disease Control has useful information about the virus. Its reporting on the number of people affected is not as current as other sites.

The National Institute of Health has both a website and a course, “In Case of Emergencies: Continuity of Operations (COOP) Planning,” that may be helpful to libraries that do not currently have a plan in place.

The National Network of Libraries of Medicine

The American Library Association

Johns Hopkins University maintains a map tracking COVID-19 Global Cases

NewsGuard's Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center

Libraries are also working closely with community partners, including municipalities and health departments. “We’re not medical experts, and we’re certainly not infectious disease experts, so we got in touch and work closely with our health department,” explained Lomax. “We’re taking our guidance from them—when we have questions we get in touch with them. We’ve decided to operate as normal until we get other guidance from the county health department.”

Further coverage of this rapidly evolving story is in progress. To share how your library is coping with the coronavirus, email mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com.

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