When my previous column was written the news was dominated by Covid-19. It was still mostly called an epidemic; the word ‘pandemic’ was only just coming into use. In South Africa a lock-down loomed. I reported on some of the ways in which libraries were being affected and how they were responding, but it seemed to me hardly worthwhile to continue collecting more literature on library responses to Covid-19, since it would be over by the time the next column appeared. How wrong I was! How wrong we all were. That includes health professionals, scientists, advisory panels, and politicians. We simply did not know. In this column I revisit the impact of Covid-19 on libraries overseas and how they are responding.
The literature on Covid-19 and LIS has grown enormously. The topics addressed include what librarians are doing to serve their users during the pandemic, how libraries can plan to reopen safely, how our environment might change in the longer term as a result of the pandemic, and how to deal with the ‘infodemic’ of fake news and conspiracy theories that has erupted along with the pandemic itself.
The literature continues to reflect practical, imaginative and compassionate responses to client needs during lock-down situations. This is shown in a report on a webinar arranged by the (American) Public Library Association (PLA). It was noted that about twenty million Americans lack home broadband access – a grave disadvantage in this time. A survey showed that by way of helping these people, 93% of responding libraries were leaving their Wi-Fi on when their buildings were closed, 44% located WiFi access points outside the library buildings (e.g. in car parks, or in roving bookmobiles), and 23% lend mobile hotspots to their clients. Other libraries have been expanding their participation in providing hunger relief to their communities in partnership with local food banks, inter alia by providing curb-side or drive-through pickup facilities for distributing free meals. In Ipswich, England, library staff recorded an audiobook for a 102-year-old woman who wished to hear again an out-of-print book her father had read for her in the 1920s.
In a more traditional vein, many libraries launched projects to collect and preserve materials documenting the pandemic. The US Library of Congress archived visual materials, including fascinating dynamic maps, about the coronavirus, while the national libraries of Singapore and Ireland were collecting materials reflecting their countries’ national experiences of the pandemic.
Many publishers have contributed by allowing libraries to make their online books and articles available free of charge to their users, albeit for a limited period. For one of many examples, see the website of the Connelly Library of LaSalle University in Philadelphia. Many major journal publishers set up portals, or “COVID-19 response pages” through which articles, reporting research on Covid-19, which would normally be behind paywalls, were made available on open access. However, there are limits to altruism. When the non-profit Internet Archive made 1.4 million books available online free of charge as a “National Emergency Library”, authors and publishers soon put a stop to this initiative, which they saw as infringing copyright.
Research on Covid-19 is being conducted on an unprecedented scale and results are being disseminated through various channels, much more rapidly than in normal circumstances, for example, using preprints, online repositories, blogs and webinars. This raises issues of preservation. Journal policies on peer review have been relaxed to allow faster access to results, which raises issues of quality control. It also raises the question: will scientific communication ever return to “normal”, or will publishing practices be influenced permanently after the pandemic is over? This question, addressed by Pippa Smart will doubtless feature in later columns. Changes in scholarly publishing are likely to affect academic and research libraries. In an opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed, Christopher Cox predicted that academic libraries will change “utterly”.
Not long after the word ‘pandemic’ impinged on our collective consciousness, another new word appeared: ‘infodemic’. In March 2020, the WHO reported that it had been forced to divert significant resources to counter huge volumes of misinformation circulating on social media and websites, a phenomenon it dubbed an ‘infodemic’. In it, conspiracy theories loom large. This is related in part to the rapid online dissemination of preliminary research results along with scientific speculation intended for fellow-researchers, referred to above. These communications are read, misinterpreted and spread by naive or malicious social media users. For a scholarly reflection on the infodemic and the future of scientific communication, see a guest post by Joseph DeBruin in The Scholarly Kitchen. Expect to see more about this in the literature on information literacy.
Patience and Fortitude
In an earlier column I mentioned the two marble lions, Patience and Fortitude, which guard the entrance to the New York Public Library. I’m happy to report that these stoic lions have been fitted with appropriately-sized facemasks to set an example to New Yorkers.
 For the correct names of the virus (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, abbreviated as SARS-CoV-2) and the disease it causes (coronavirus disease, abbreviated as COVID-19) see the WHO website: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/technical-guidance/naming-the-coronavirus-disease-(covid-2019)-and-the-virus-that-causes-it
 For a timeline of the international response to COVID-19, see the World Health Organization (WHO) website at https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/events-as-they-happen
 “Advancing digital equity”, https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2020/07/01/pla-advancing-digital-equity-covid-19/.
 “Hunger is on the rise during COVID-19…”, http://www.ilovelibraries.org/article/hunger-rise-during-covid-19%E2%80%94here%E2%80%99s-what-libraries-are-doing-help.
 “Ipswich library staff record audiobook for 102-year-old”, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-suffolk-53110057#:~:text=Librarians%20are%20recording%20an%20audiobook,by%20her%20%22wonderful%22%20father
 “Collecting the Maps of the Coronavirus Pandemic”, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-04/collecting-the-maps-of-the-coronavirus-pandemic
 “Documenting COVID-19 in Singapore”, https://www.nlb.gov.sg/GetInvolved/ContributeCreate/DocumentingCOVID-19.aspx
 “Web archiving the Irish experience of COVID-19”, https://www.nli.ie/en/list/latest-news.aspx?article=b45de186-4b40-4024-b3e0-520e93cefcde
 Association of American Publishers. “What publishersd are doing to help during the Coronavirus pandemic”, https://publishers.org/aap-news/covid-19-response/
 “‘Emergency’ Online Library Draws Ire of Some Authors”, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/books/internet-archive-emergency-library.html
 Smart, Pippa (2020) Publishing during pandemic: innovation, collaboration and change. Learned publishing 33(3):194-197 (DOI 10.1002/leap.1314)
 Cox, Christopher (2020) Changed, changed utterly. Inside higher ed, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/06/05/academic-libraries-will-change-significant-ways-result-pandemic-opinion
 Oxford Analytica (2020) “Misinformation will undermine coronavirus responses”, https://www.emerald.com/insight/content/doi/10.1108/OXAN-DB250989/full/html
 DeBruin, Joseph (2020) The Covid infodemic and the future of communication in science. The scholarly kitchen, https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2020/07/08/guest-post-the-covid-infodemic-and-the-future-of-the-communication-of-science/.
 Andrew, Scottie (2020) “The iconic lion statues outside the New York Public Library are wearing face masks to encourage humans to do the same”, CNN Travel, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/30/us/new-york-public-library-lion-masks-trnd/index.html