Libraries agreed on the importance of sustainable development goals, the importance of expanding their roles, being custodians of wellness and putting customers at the centre of everything they do. While almost everything went virtual as much as it could, this new world has created concerns for the environment, deepening inequalities and the need for diversity to be taken seriously.
Researching the past appears to show that the response of governments and libraries today is not too dissimilar from that of the past.
In the United States during the influenza pandemic in 1918, many public libraries temporarily closed. Closures were decided upon by each library system rather than a national mandate and these depended on local transmission levels. Libraries removed fines on books and some libraries allowed books to be returned. For libraries that remained open there was high demand particularly in areas where restaurants and theatres shut. The Library of Congress remained partially open accessible to members of parliament and to some government officials who had the right documentation.
Some libraries had policies to deal with materials and to quarantine patrons. Previous policies which allowed ill patrons to browse and borrow books were quickly rescinded and never readopted. Social distancing and closing public venues, including libraries, came into force from the early 1920s and masks were also mandated in public spaces. In many cases the Government provided these. Programming was limited, but libraries made every effort to get materials to patrons whose demand grew while they were housebound.
Libraries were responsible for disseminating public information and ensuring against misinformation – much like they still do in today’s circumstances.
The question of whether books were carriers of disease was the subject of constant debate. Some considered books to be extremely unlikely to be carriers, while other libraries destroyed books from households who had the flu strain. Decisions were made by public officials not the libraries themselves.
What appears to be consistent is that libraries focused on what they could do to serve their communities whilst still minimising risk. Safety was a priority for patrons and staff.
Libraries are now being seen as places, community places, with the most successful being those that operate as a community centre and where people can spend several hours there. For the future, the people-centred concept is deeply rooted in library design and the focus is on service.
Going forward, the catch phrases that caught my attention were:
The future is digital.
The hybrid is the mainstream.
The library is a place.