The International Cooperation Caucus hosted an immersion session for the 2021 Annual Meeting: "Health and Libraries during COVID-19: An MLA International and Intercultural Session." Organized by Ana Corral of the University of Houston and Ginny Pannabecker, AHIP, of Virginia Commonwealth University, the session featured six librarians from around the US and beyond who shared their pandemic experiences.
Whether in Africa, Latin America, or North America, all libraries adapted to drastic mandates with resilience. Challenges no doubt strained each library, but they also allowed librarians to think differently about their roles and to grasp new opportunities.
Adopting New Routines and Rethinking Past Routines
While libraries in the West assume remote online services to be the norm, Grace Ajuwon of the University of Ibadan in Nigeria explains that in Africa, getting to online information is hampered by uneven power supply and internet service, and for this reason, library resources are largely based in the building. Without reliable off-campus access to online databases and articles, librarians had to send papers or respond to user questions using the mobile phone network with applications like WhatsApp. They are now earnestly considering strategies on how they can shift to remote services relying on open-access materials that do not require onsite IP authentication.
Avril Reid of the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago reported how her library experienced many building disruptions (including a major leak). After months of closure, the library prepared for limited onsite services by rearranging furniture, installing hand sanitizing stations, and constructing plexiglass barriers. Prepandemic, emergency planning may not have been prioritized, but now her library must update the procedures to anticipate any type of emergency.
Learning during COVID-19
Video conferencing is now an indispensable part of communication, but for library student and new professional Ellie Svoboda of the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, the onsite library program transformed into an online program with Zoom sessions across four-hour stretches. Conferences like the LOEX, where students can present and network with potential employers, suddenly evaporated. But one positive outcome of the move to online was the chance to intern with not one but three departments and to help plan virtual conferences.
Ana Isabel Delgado Valentín of the Suffolk University Law School in Boston described a project that produces reports on COVID-19 about enacted laws and mandates in Latin America and the Caribbean. Founded by Marcelo Rodriguez, the website consists so far of fifty-five evidence-based reports that Delgado Valentín and other multilingual contributors wrote in English while relying on sources in Spanish, Portuguese, and other languages.
The Native Health Database founded in the 1990s contains unique information on the health of American Indians and Alaska Natives. But, it recently languished with the loss of a key librarian and the disruptions from the pandemic. The value of the database as a current, accessible, and sustainable resource compelled Jonathan Pringle, who oversees it at the University of New Mexico, to migrate the NHD materials to Mukurtu, an open-source content management system designed for the archiving of papers, reports, and images of Indigenous peoples.
Finally, the library at Old Dominion University in Virginia faced many of the same difficulties that other libraries faced, but Karen Centeno-Casillas described an opportunity that utilized her bilingual skills. To assist the Latinx students at her university and in the community, she developed coronavirus library guides in Spanish, which were also shared with public libraries.
In addition to their presentations, two librarians provided their views on a couple questions.
How can librarians around the world work together to oppose the infodemic?
Jonathan Pringle: One of the most efficacious ways of combatting infodemic is to deploy trusted colleagues, friends, and family members who are able to connect with these individuals and make the difficult conversations more approachable and relatable. Libraries worldwide are well-poised to collaborate and provide resources and talking points to help facilitate these conversations.
Ellie Svoboda: Librarians can agree upon a handful of authoritative sources and limit our libguides and other information sharing platforms to those trustworthy voices. It is also beneficial to create relationships with the public and the community of the library so that patrons can feel comfortable asking the library clarifying questions.
What other thoughts can you share about your pandemic experience?
Jonathan Pringle: We felt our administration really valued our health and safety during this time. While productivity and ingenuity thrived in this environment, over one year later cracks have emerged that speak to underlying inequities (i.e., parents with kids at home, staff and faculty with direct responsibilities for the physical building). Even more troubling is the yet unknown impact on the overall emotional and mental health of our team.
Ellie Svoboda: The pandemic pushed our library to think creatively and create asynchronous and online learning content. As a result, our classes are reaching an audience that had previously been unable to participate in library class offerings. As we return to our traditional modes of teaching, we want to continue to connect with this community.