This is a slightly expanded version of my column of news, views and snippets from the international literature of books, libraries, and information, which appears in LIASA-in-Touch, the newsletter of the Library and Information Association of South Africa.
The Coronavirus (COVID-19) and libraries
As I write this the news is dominated by the Coronavirus epidemic/pandemic. It is encouraging to see how quickly libraries have been responding to the emerging and rapidly evolving situation. A quick search in Google for “public libraries and Corona virus” turns up a slew of library web pages devoted to it. A good example is the site of the Oak Park Public Library, in Illinois, USA, which offers a page dated 3 March 2020: https://oppl.org/news-events/announcements/coronavirus-and-your-library/). Under the heading “Coronavirus and your library” the Library offers detailed information sourced directly from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It includes links to travel guidance related to COVID-19 as well as clinical guidance (including a picture of the test kit used for testing for the virus), and some information specifically about how emergency alerts are disseminated in Oak Bay. As a matter of interest, the Village of Oak Bay is a relatively affluent town adjacent to Chicago, and it is known for its architectural treasures in the “Prairie Style” of architecture. Visitors can see a large number of historic buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and other architects working in the Prairie Style (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Lloyd_Wright#Prairie_style_houses_(1900%E2%80%931914).)
You will not believe what librarians don’t all get up to
The rapid response to the Coronavirus illustrates an admirable characteristic of American public librarians: they are aware of the events, issues, needs and crises preoccupying their communities, and they respond quickly – sometimes with anxious soul-searching, but often with practical measures and imaginative programmes. As the following examples show, this is not limited to public librarians.
The humble honey bee is of critical importance as the pollinator of the crops that feed us, but their numbers are declining due to misuse of pesticides and climate change. A number of US libraries are responding to the crisis by starting beekeeping programmes, for example, placing beehives on their roofs. Rachel Chance (2019) describes several such projects which combine education, citizen science, community involvement and a bit of extra income – one of the libraries uses it in the library café.
Not all Americans are wealthy. In the USA there is a big income gap between rich and poor, and a surprising proportion of the population is inadequately fed, clothed and housed. In a programme known as Operation Warm Welcome, branches of the Chicago Public Library partner with Operation Warm, a non-profit organization that has given away 3 million winter coats to kids in need since its inception in 1998 (Panuncial 2019). Participation by librarians also brings into the library children and parents who have never ventured into it. As they select coats for the children, they can learn about what the library has to offer, and be enrolled as library members.
The academic performance of students who don’t get to eat nutritious meals regularly is bound to suffer. A US government agency, the Government Accountability Office, estimated in 2018 that more than 30% of college students face “food insecurity”, which means in practice that they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from. These are often first generation students, students from low-income families, or single parents. A number of colleges have set up “food pantries” where students can receive free provisions. Fort Hays State University in Kansas has a university garden, from which fresh produce is made available along with other, food donated by staff, students, and local businesses. Where else to locate the food pantry but in the university library? The facility is called the Tiger Food Pantry and serves about 1,700 people each year (Udell 2019).
Check this out
What we used to call lending or circulation is referred to in American English as “checking out”. Toys and art prints are old hat. Here are some of the other things American public library users (“patrons”) can check out: bicycles (Jasinski 2019), cake pans and other kitchen tools (Grillo 2019), canoes (Burnham 2019), sewing machines, dog activity kits, croquet sets, fishing equipment, Santa (i.e. Father Christmas) suits, snowshoes, apple pickers (an apple picker is a device for picking apples), and umbrellas (Dankowski 2017). And persons. Human beings? Yes. “At a Human Library event, patrons check out people—not books—to ‘read’ through conversation. Someone might ‘read’ an alcoholic, an immigrant, or an obese person by asking them direct questions in an intimate setting. The goal is to confront prejudice and stereotypes” (Granger 2017). This idea originated in Denmark (see https://humanlibrary.org/). If that’s a bit too challenging, how about borrowing a dog? In neighbouring Canada, you can borrow therapy dogs (https://ca.news.yahoo.com/canine-library-offers-chance-check-220000318.html). These trained dogs are non-judgmental and they like listening to poetry, but not for very long, it seems. They can only be borrowed for a fifteen-minute walk in a nearby park.
That’s not all our American colleagues get involved in. More about their sometimes weird but often inspiring initiatives, no doubt, in later instalments.
Now for something quite different
Next we head south, to Peru, in South America. During the Pacific War of 1879-1884 between Chile and Peru, the Chilean forces occupying the Peruvian capital carried off thousands of books taken from Peru’s National Library. More than 4,500 of them have since been returned to Peru, but one particular precious item ended up in a private collection in Brazil: a colourfully illustrated manuscript containing the memoirs of former Inca leaders, written in the 1830s by Justo Apu Sahuaraura Inca (1775-1853), a descendent of the Inca emperor Huayna Capac (1493-1525). After negotiations lasting a decade, it has now been returned to Peru and has been digitized (https://www.france24.com/en/20200221-peru-recovers-priceless-inca-manuscript-stolen-during-occupation). I have not been able to find the digitized version on the Web, but for a few more illustrations see https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-50568043 and https://www.ngenespanol.com/descubrimientos/recuperan-una-joya-documental-sumamente-rara-de-los-incas/.
Manuscripts pose special conservation challenges. This is evident from two well-illustrated posts on the Cambridge University Library Special Collections blog (https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=17463 and https://specialcollections-blog.lib.cam.ac.uk/?p=19053). They describe a collaborative project to preserve, conserve, digitize and catalogue Greek manuscripts in Cambridge, Heidelberg and the Vatican. The manuscripts have to be prepared for digitization to ensure that they will not be damaged. The cataloguers have to reconstruct the origins of the manuscripts as well as their provenance (i.e. where they were before they came to Cambridge), using evidence from the script, inscriptions by scribes or previous owners, decoration, construction and physical details. The illustrations show that matching up fragments requires fascinating and painstaking research – a library activity quite far removed from where we started.
Burnham, Emily. 2019. ‘You Can Borrow a Canoe at This Maine Library’. Bangor Daily News. September 23. https://bangordailynews.com/2019/09/23/news/penobscot/planning-to-mountain-bike-near-millinocket-pick-up-your-bike-and-helmet-at-the-library/.
Chance, Rachel. 2019. ‘File under Bee’. American Libraries Magazine. September 3. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/09/03/file-under-bee-library-beekeeping/.
Dankowski, Terra. 2017. ‘The Library of Things’. American Libraries Magazine. May. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/library-of-things.pdf.
Granger, Liz. 2017. ‘If These Books Could Talk’. American Libraries Magazine. June 1. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2017/06/01/if-these-books-could-talk-human-libraries/.
Grillo, Emma. 2019. ‘Baking Isn’t Hard When You’ve Got a Library Card’. Eater. September 16. https://www.eater.com/2019/9/16/20861011/public-library-cake-pans-on-loan-baking.
Jasinski, Peter. 2019. ‘Fall River Library Goes from Sharing Books to Sharing Bikes’. The Herald News, Fall River, MA. July 12. https://www.heraldnews.com/news/20190712/fall-river-library-goes-from-sharing-books-to-sharing-bikes.
Panuncial, Diana. 2019. ‘Cozying up with New Coats’. American Libraries Magazine. December 20. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/12/20/operation-warm-cozying-new-coats/.
Udell, Emily. 2019. ‘Food for Thought: Academic Libraries Are Fighting Campus Food Insecurity with Onsite Pantries’. American Libraries. May. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2019/05/01/library-campus-food-insecurity-food-for-thought/.