Libraries Fight Misinformation on Coronavirus

Public and academic libraries alike have been educating their users, holding seminars, and doing Q&As to help people learn about the disease as well as dispel misconceptions.

Skokie Public Library Civic Lab
  Civic Lab Coronavirus: Distinguishing Fears from Facts
Photo courtesy of Skokie Public Library

Libraries across the U.S. are helping their communities stay informed about the coronavirus. Even before “shelter in place” orders took effect, public and academic libraries alike were educating their users, holding seminars, and doing Q&As to help people learn about the disease as well as dispel misconceptions. Others have developed central websites to be one-stop shops for their communities while figuring out how to ramp up their digital offerings.

For the Skokie Public Library, it started with an event on February 26, “Civic Lab Coronavirus: Distinguishing Fears from Facts.” The event was part of the larger Civic Lab initiative that the library has had since August 2016.  Amy Koester, Learning Experiences Manager at Skokie, explains that Civic Lab is a way to “explore topics in the news;” the Civic Lab’s interdepartmental team of now 10 people would monitor the news and develop a Lab for important and popular topics.

This particular edition of Civic Lab came to fruition when the Skokie Village Health Director reached out to share that the Village was getting a lot of questions on the topic. The Skokie team decided that they needed to be proactive and get ahead of the issue. The library’s data coordinator gathered statistics and the team developed a handout of curated sources. The Civic Lab was set up in the middle of the library so people could ask questions as they entered the library, as well as review printouts of articles and World Health Organization situation reports. The team even put up a whiteboard so patrons could write down questions.

Koester said that people of all ages, school children, teenagers, and adults stopped by to ask questions. Koester noted that unlike many other Civic Labs, mostly everyone had heard of the virus already, but the lab helped dispel some inaccurate information.

The library building has since closed because of the virus, but the library continues to provide information on the virus to its community in digital formats. Recently the Library hosted a Q&A on its Instagram (@skokielibrary) about the coronavirus. And on April 2nd, the team plans a Civic Lab chat on Twitter (@skokielibrary #civiclabchats) from noon to 1 p.m. about the virus as well.

Across the country, the Hawai’i State Public Library System also held an event on coronavirus on March 4th at its Hilo branch. Stacey Aldrich, State Librarian of the unique Hawai’i State Public Library System, which runs every public library in the whole state, explains that the event came out of the Hilo Library branch’s responsiveness to community needs. Now that the libraries have been closed due to the governor’s order, among the digital services the system is working to develop is a blog with a friendly persona which would answer questions in an engaging way. One of the topics the staff has considered covering in this forum is the coronavirus itself.

Some public libraries have partnered with their local municipalities and other partners to provide coronavirus resources. Princeton Public Library, in partnership with the Municipality of Princeton and Princeton Public Schools, developed princetoncovid.org, a one stop shop of information for the entire community, explains Jennifer Podolsky, Executive Director of Princeton Public Library. The website has the Mayor’s Daily Updates, information on where to get help or where to help out, lists of places that are open, and much more.

The website came together quickly in about 48 hours once the Princeton mayor asked for the site to be created. The teams involved spent time updating the website as information evolved.

Part of the impetus was trying to get ahead of misinformation that was being spread in the news. The mayor wanted a single source with “verified information from trusted institutions.”

ADDRESSING THE CAMPUS COMMUNITY

Academic libraries have also been stepping up to the challenge. Washington University in St. Louis University Libraries developed a comprehensive COVID-19 resource guide. In addition to general information, there’s sections on dealing with racism and prejudice and a link to an NPR comic for kids on the virus.

In conversation with Melissa Vetter, Subject Librarian for Biology, Psychology and Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology and Amanda Albert, Information Literacy Coordinator, at Washington University St. Louis (WUSTL) University Libraries, they explained that even before the need for the website, they had been running workshops about fact checking and combating general misinformation so it was a natural fit for them to develop the resources guide.

The resources guide was built on a template developed by Portland Community College. Albert recalls seeing signs across campus trying to inform people that the virus was not a Chinese disease and realized the impact the racism surrounding the virus was having on the school's Asian population. Albert felt it was important to address xenophobia in the guide. As information changes and evolves, the Libraries  have been updating the guide with new information.

Libraries are well placed to combat misinformation about COVID-19 in an increasingly politically polarized environment where even medical facts can be seen through a partisan lens. Aldrich points out that “out of all government institutions, libraries are still trusted.” A 2016 Pew Research Poll found that 78 percent of adults thought that libraries helped them find “trustworthy and reliable” information.

Koester sees the role of being proactive in answering questions people may have about issues that matter to them as an extension of the librarian’s work at the reference and information desk.

Albert and Vetter added: “we are not only there to help students and faculty with their academic/professional side of their lives, we are here to provide holistic experience…we’ve recognized, especially over the past year, we also need to address their civic and personal lives.”  Especially now, when the civic has become very personal and both are in danger of swamping the academic and professional completely, the role of the library in addressing the whole patron’s information needs is more important than ever.

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