COVID Insights, Perspectives 05.12.2020

First Restorers in a COVID-19 Era

Derek Jones, Cultural Practice Leader in our Durham studio, considers the library’s role in fortifying communities.
Anacostia Library
Anacostia Library, Washington, D.C.
Mark Herboth

This story is part of our insight series around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The role of cultural institutions is in part to sift through a world of chaos, coalesce truths, and tell our unvarnished stories. The epitome of this may be our public libraries—the original keepers and interpreters of our collective data. Perhaps a closer look at how this one institution is responding might shed some light on its future and by extension the futures of other cultural entities.

Before we go there, let’s revisit the guidelines for managing your way through the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • You will have many symptoms if you get the virus, but you can also: get symptoms without getting the virus, get the virus without having any symptoms, be contagious without having symptoms, or be noncontagious with symptoms.
  • You MUST NOT leave the house for any reason, but if you have a reason, you can leave the house.
  • Masks are useless at protecting you against the virus, but you may have to wear one because it can save lives, but they may not work, but they may be mandatory, but maybe not.

Confused? We are inundated with ever-changing information and contradictory “facts” that compound uncertainty and leave many grasping for reliable information. Since distancing currently defines our resilience, we have seen culture—the shared values and experiences that bind us together—be transformed. Cultural institutions like libraries and other places for civic congregation have been indefinitely shuttered as we focus on life-or-death matters. Culture, however, does not disappear, because life without it is no life at all.

Lest We Forget

Have we entered a brave new world of pandemic proportions? Well, yes and no. The 1918 flu pandemic claimed more lives than both World Wars combined—infecting between 50 and 100 million people in all corners of the globe. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George got it. Woodrow Wilson got it. Lillian Gish, Franz Kafka, Walt Disney, and Amelia Earhart got it. Many, including Donald Trump’s grandfather, succumbed to it.

Libraries and many other public spaces were closed during a lockdown period in 1918. Strangely, Broadway theaters and places of amusement remained open, but they were placed on restricted schedules and obliged to include public health announcements. In times of crisis, we need regular and reliable information about how to protect one another.

First Restorers

In the current climate of internet trolls, fake news, and divisive partisan bias, where do we turn for quality information? In 2019, the Pew Research Center reported that nearly 80 percent of people cite libraries as a source for trusted information. In times of crisis, libraries help us cut through the din of hysteria to understand what’s going on. Libraries may not be the first responders, pulling bodies from the rubble or intubating emergency patients, but they are on the front line of “first restorers.” After the demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, public libraries stayed open when schools were closed to offer kids a safe place and classes taught by volunteers. Following hurricane Sandy, without heat or light, branch libraries in Queens set up children’s story hours in their parking lots to give kids a sense of normalcy. In Las Vegas, one of the hardest-hit areas in the country after the 2008–9 financial collapse, the library system stretched program budgets to stay open seven days a week to help provide citizens with resources to cope with job loss and home foreclosures.

Libraries are the epitome of a social infrastructure designed to build and fortify community in times of distress. This disease, however, atomizes us into pockets of isolation. But ever resourceful librarians are improvising creative ways to deploy their assets as trusted providers of information, places of creative production, and distributed networks of outreach.

Restoring Normalcy

Libraries are sidestepping obstacles to step up and fill in gaps where resources are normally inaccessible. According to a Public Library Association survey published in early April, 98 percent of libraries have closed to the public in the wake of COVID-19. Despite being “closed,” libraries continue to provide the services, programming, and support they always have, only now they do it exclusively online, curbside, or from the parking lot.

Almost 95 percent of U.S. libraries are leaving their Wi-Fi on and redirecting coverage to parking lots, where patrons can park and connect. Nearly a quarter of libraries are loaning out laptops and mobile hotspots to improve equitable access to information.

Restoring Creative Production

Libraries have transformed themselves from grocery stores of collections into kitchens of experimentation. Makerspaces have evolved from novelty programs into innovation incubators, turning ideas into products and consumers into producers. The COVID-19 crisis has brought the two laboratories together.

Maker communities have been quick to partner with libraries to manufacture specialized personal protective equipment (PPE) and distribute it in their communities.

Cleveland Public Libraries have networked maker spaces across their system to manufacture 2,500 face shields, to go to fire departments, EMS teams, and other front-line responders.
The New Castle Country Route 9 Library and Innovation Center, in Delaware, joined a national coalition of makers to produce face-shield components for national distribution. Additional design variations have been submitted for approval by Delaware’s ChristianaCare health system for delivery to local hospitals and Delaware nursing homes. As nimble makers, libraries have taken charge to fill the emergency supply gap while industry retools.
Photo: Mark Herboth
Photo: Mark Herboth

Restoring Networks of Healing

In this climate of distancing and self-isolation, libraries’ physical networks, partnerships, and distribution models are highlighting outreach as an invaluable resilience strategy. Instead of bringing people and disparate communities to centralized services, established library networks deliver information, cultural content, and technology to patrons where they are.

In Toronto, when a third of the city’s food banks shut down, the Toronto Public Library quickly redeployed its 100-building network as the infrastructure for a citywide distribution strategy. The central book processing and distribution center has been converted into an impromptu food warehouse where in just a couple of hours, volunteers can pack 850 food hampers to feed over 2,500 people. Branches like the Albion Library are highly visible, familiar civic markers where people experiencing food insecurity feel comfortable visiting.

In a Post-Quarantine Era

I’ve taken up libraries as a case study here because they are a model of the agility and adaptability we need our cultural institutions, as first restorers, to be capable of.

One day after the curve has flattened and the threat is contained, when a safe vaccine has been approved, our gatherings, events, and cultural institutions will once again bind us together through shared values and experiences like it was before the COVID-19 outbreak. We will hug our friends again. We will rally behind our sports teams. We will jam ourselves into crowded concert halls. And we will congregate in parks and libraries and museums. That is what we do. That is the culture of being human.

And in our clamor to remember how our lives used to work, we may be tempted to forget what we need to be ready for and how to be ready for it. Walter Benjamin suggests that silences about public horrors enable human societies to cope with collective recovery. To his point, collective recovery from the trauma of the 1918 flu pandemic appears to have been the amnesia of the Roaring Twenties.

If we recover into our own Roaring Twenties, we need to make sure it does not erase the lessons of COVID-19. We are going to change the public tools and infrastructure we have in place to manage the next crisis, and we need to keep this crisis in the conversation as we make those changes. As part of the social infrastructure, I want our cultural institutions to be able to do what our libraries have been doing as first restorers: leverage their trusted reputations, flex their cultural capital, and activate physical networks in the service of emergency relief.