Global Gleanings #15: Disruption, disruption…

This quarterly column of news, views and snippets from the international literature of books, libraries, and information, appears in LIASA-in-Touch, the newsletter of the Library and Information Association of South Africa.

 Long Covid

The worst of the disruptive Covid pandemic is behind us, we hope. But Covid has not gone away altogether. Here I’m not only thinking of ‘Long Covid’, but also of more far-reaching consequences. The world is experiencing long-term social, economic, and political effects, which do not leave LIS untouched. Much has already been published on how libraries have responded and coped. Several insightful articles on this appeared in a special issue of IFLA journal. Dobreva and Angelescu (2022) pointed out that we are living in the Covid-19 era, not the Covid-19 crisis. We are in it for the long haul. A report on a large-scale survey conducted in Australia concluded that libraries had shown that they could respond in an agile and adaptable manner, and that Covid had demonstrated the value to communities of library buildings (Wakeling et al. 2022).

One of the new words coined at the height of the pandemic is ‘infodemic’. According to the World Health Organization, an infodemic is an overload of information, including false or misleading information, during a disease outbreak. It causes confusion and risk-taking behaviours that can harm health. It also leads to mistrust in health authorities, and undermines the public health response. Clearly, libraries have a role to play in countering infodemics and disinformation generally (Walker 2021; Paris, Carmien, and Marshall 2022). Statements by Elon Musk following his recent takeover of Twitter suggest that his company’s policies on reining in false news will be watered down in the interest of ‘free speech’. Will this open the flood-gates to disinformation? Librarians support freedom of expression in principle, but absolute free speech is problematic (Malik 2022).

Covid has also had a long-term disruptive effect on intellectual property. The first anti-Covid vaccines were made available within eleven months, a feat that had been thought impossible. Several things were done differently this time. One of them was the widespread sharing among scientists of data and findings, bypassing traditional publishing channels and using open access media to accelerate the dissemination of information. This has raised the question: if this could be done to speed up the fight against Covid, should greater access to medical literature not always be possible? A recent article compared the accessibility of peer-reviewed literature on Covid and ten diseases with the highest worldwide death rates. It was found that 89,5% of papers on Covid were published on open access, as against an average of 48,8% for the other diseases (Capocasa, Anagnostou, and Destro Bisol 2022). In that respect, the Covid pandemic represents a breakthrough and a challenge for open access and open science more generally, showing what the future may hold for the system of scholarly publication. For a thorough, well-documented analysis of what this may mean for South African science, see Strydom, Mellett, Van Rensburg et al. (2022).


The world was still digging itself out of the chaos caused by Covid, when on 24 February 2022, Russian forces invaded Russia’s much smaller neighbour Ukraine. As Ukraine proved more difficult to subdue than anticipated, Russia’s ‘special military operation’, soon developed into a major war, which has disrupted the global economy. Inevitably, libraries and librarians have been affected. At a special session on the conflict during the July 2022 IFLA World Library and Information Congress, Ukrainian librarian Oksana Boiarynova reported that by 2 July over 60 libraries had been destroyed, with a hundred more damaged. Ukrainian librarians have claimed that Russia has deliberately been targeting libraries, because this is a war over language and identity (Marche 2022). It is said that the first casualty in a war is the truth. Could the number of libraries that have been destroyed or damaged be exaggerated for propaganda purposes? UNESCO has been doing a preliminary damage assessment of cultural sites in Ukraine. By 12 December 2022 UNESCO had verified damage to 227 sites, including eleven libraries. That is eleven too many. UNESCO’s procedures are very deliberate and cumbersome; the number is sure to grow. In war, information is weaponized. Can freedom of information be upheld in these circumstances? In a recent issue of The conversation, a Slavic resources librarian at the University of Toronto discusses propaganda and how libraries deal with misinformation in a situation where freedom of information is not merely an abstract concept (Kiebuzinski 2022).


To conclude this somewhat depressing column, here is something more uplifting. It concerns two notebooks by Charles Darwin, one of them dating from 1837, which had been missing from the collection of Cambridge University Library for two decades. Recently they were returned to the Library anonymously in a bright pink gift bag, together with a message in a plain brown envelope. The message read:


Happy Easter


Charles Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch

Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch, from his 1837 notebook. Photo Stuart Roberts, Cambridge University Library



Capocasa, Marco, Paolo Anagnostou, and Giovanni Destro Bisol. 2022. “A Light in the Dark: Open Access to Medical Literature and the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Information Research, 27(2), Paper 929. Retrieved from http://InformationR.Net/Ir/27-2/Paper929. .Html (Internet Archive https://Bit.Ly/3zymX5J) https://Doi.Org/10.47989/Irpaper929 27 (2): Paper 929.

Dobreva, Milena, and Hermina Anghelescu. 2022. “Libraries and COVID-19: Opportunities for Innovation.” IFLA Journal 48 (1): 3–8.

Kiebuzinski, Ksenya. 2022. “The War in Ukraine Shows How Libraries Play a Vital Role in Challenging Disinformation.” The Conversation. September 26, 2022.

Malik, Nesrine. 2022. “Elon Musk’s Twitter Is Fast Proving That Free Speech at All Costs Is a Dangerous Fantasy.” The Guardian, November 28, 2022, sec. Opinion.

Marche, Stephen. 2022. “‘Our Mission Is Crucial’: Meet the Warrior Librarians of Ukraine.” The Observer, December 4, 2022, sec. Books.

Paris, Britt, Kathleen Carmien, and Michelle Marshall. 2022. “‘We Want to Do More, But…’: New Jersey Public Library Approaches to Misinformation.” Library & Information Science Research 44 (2): 101157.

Strydom, Adéle, Juanita Mellet, Jeanne Van Rensburg, Ignatius Viljoen, Anastasios Athanasiadis, and Michael S. Pepper. 2022. “Open Access and Its Potential Impact on Public Health – A South African Perspective.” Frontiers in Research Metrics and Analytics 7 (December).

Wakeling, Simon, Jane Garner, Philip Hider, Hamid Jamali, Jessie Lymn, Yazdan Mansourian, and Holly Randell-Moon. 2022. “‘The Challenge Now Is for Us to Remain Relevant’: Australian Public Libraries and the COVID-19 Crisis.” IFLA Journal 48 (1): 138–54.

Walker, Philip. 2021. “The Library’s Role in Countering Infodemics.” Journal of the Medical Library Association 109 (1): 133–36.


Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch, from his 1837 notebook. Photo Stuart Roberts, Cambridge University Library





About Peter Lor

Peter Johan Lor is a Netherlands-born South African librarian and academic. In retirement he continues to pursue scholarly interests as a research fellow in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
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