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'Libraries and Pandemics: Past and Present' by Julia Skinner
Julia Skinner writes the following for the JSTOR Daily newsletter:
In 1918, World War I was coming to a close, and widespread changes were afoot. It was in some ways a moment similar to today: rapid technological development brought sweeping changes to workplaces and homes. … [A] pandemic began to sweep the globe, killing millions. Libraries across the U.S. helped people stay informed, entertained, and cared for as they disseminated information and resources, shifted their services, and re-imagined how they brought collections to the communities they served. …
At the time, medical research held that paper materials, including the books and newspapers at libraries, would harbor contagions from anyone who touched them, and local health officials (not librarians) determined whether or not materials would be destroyed. Librarians and library records lamented the physical loss of books, which were destroyed after being returned from influenza-afflicted homes. …
Library services began to change, too, away from a strict focus on classic literature and towards a variety of resources best suited to individual communities. Perhaps the most notable was Forrest Spaulding, a Des Moines, Iowa library director who is said to have destroyed ‘pro-German’ pamphlets by the fistful during the war, doing so at night to avoid backlash. Twenty years later, he changed course dramatically, authoring the Library Bill of Rights, which aims to ensure patrons’ access to information. …
The 1918 flu pandemic was the first in which libraries were central to disseminating public health information, spurred by health officials’ struggles to share updates with communities during the 1916 Polio epidemic. This new library role in educating the public, combined with shifts in library focuses towards usable information, made libraries partners in many public awareness campaigns, from public health to nuclear safety, in the coming decades.
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