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. Fights for labor and voting rights were underway. Then, in the spring, 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.
Public libraries in the United States started to proliferate in the late 1800s and early 1900s, often founded by women’s clubs and other social groups seeking to benefit their communities. Their early focus was on classic literature, which was thought to improve and transform the reader. However, thanks in part to librarianship during the pandemic , a shift occurred after World War I towards “useful information”, and with that shift came a focus on readers’ needs and interests.
In 1918, when the pandemic hit the United States, many libraries temporarily closed. Some libraries had existing policies for dealing with materials and quarantined patrons after smaller outbreaks, but few were prepared for a disease outbreak at a large scale. At the Cedar Rapids, Iowa Public Library, for instance, ill patrons were still allowed to browse and borrow prior to 1918, a policy that was quickly reversed and never re-adopted.
International health guidelines from 1921, drafted in the wake of the Influenza virus, explicitly note the importance of social distancing and closing public gathering spaces. During the pandemic itself masks were mandated in public spaces, including libraries. Libraries quickly shifted focus to protect public health, limiting programing while still getting materials to readers, who demanded books in ever greater numbers while stuck at home.
Despite precautions, some staff still fell ill, and financial as well as personal strain on staff and libraries led to job cuts and resignations. Cedar Rapids librarian E. Joanna Hagey recalled the strain the public health crisis put on librarians:
Never before did we run with such a short staff. The circulation is larger than last December’s. All but the most pressing business had to be left undone, but when there are not people enough to cover all duties the less important must be dropped. For a time Miss Taylor, Miss Wolfe and I were the only full time people here. All members of the staff have shared the extra duties and have worked with a will. Let us hope that such a succession of resignations and absences on account of sickness will never recur.
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. E. Joanna Hagey mourned her collection, saying in her minutes: “Many times the books have done good service before destruction overtakes them, at other times it is the new books which are the victims.”
Librarians’ concerns sparked waves of changes to collection policies, as older theories about the spread of infection through library materials and postage stamps gave way to more nuanced understanding. In 1918, library books were seen as fomites (or objects likely to harbor infectious microbes); today we know that paper and books are not reliable conductors of viral agents, for the most part.
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 Bill was adopted by the Des Moines Public Library board, and later became an important guiding document for American librarianship writ large. These changes in library philosophy, as well as in library policy around contagion, laid the groundwork for responses to COVID-19.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Richard Tutwiler of Flagstaff City-Coconino County Public Library recalls that, “The biggest priority was quickly determining how to best serve our communities’ needs from a distance, keeping public health and safety paramount for not only our patrons, but our staff.” Just as in 1918, the goal was to provide the best community services possible while minimizing risk. In many libraries, buildings were closed, work from home schemes (far more feasible than in 1918) were devised and quickly implemented, and social programming and interlibrary loan suspended. Laura Gray, a Library Assistant at the West Linn, Oregon Public Library, says what stands out most to her about the early days of lockdown was “just feeling grateful that I worked with such a creative and flexible team.”
The growth of community-focused librarianship in the last century became evident too: in particular the priority in maintaining popular programs geared towards specific community needs. While in 1918, children’s books were often off-limits and children’s programming limited, most librarians I spoke to cited their storytimes and other children’s programming from 2020 to be some of the most rewarding and well-attended, and many offered other children’s programs as well. One Illinois librarian recalls her library’s “Tech Take Homes” which gave kids simple science and technology activities.
For university libraries, immediate community needs looked a bit different: Sarah Bosler from Citrus College, remembers that when lockdown started “the most important resource that students needed was reserve textbooks,” and the library responded by providing digital versions, shifting collection policies around textbooks in order to get information in the hands of the people who needed it.
In 1918, some libraries, like Cedar Rapids Public, still allowed limited browsing but prohibited “lingering”. In 2020, this was no longer true, and libraries tried to make up for the lack of physical materials access by offering curbside service: including print materials, but sometimes art supplies as well. Redwood City library director Derek Wolfgram recalls that one great success of 2020 were curbside craft kits, for families to pick up and assemble at home. While ebook circulation numbers rose dramatically, sometimes almost 400%, many librarians also noted that browsing physical books still mattered to their patrons, and Sydney Pearlstein in Gwinnett County, Georgia recalls making displays in the windows to help patrons safely browse at a distance.
Library staff also turned to each other to provide care: the LACUNY Mutual Aid network, was formed by the Library Association of the City University of New York several months after lockdown started as a way for library professionals to give and receive financial aid.
But the going has not always been easy, and librarians pointed to some challenges unique to this pandemic, particularly as Tutwiler noted, that “the exclusively digital formats of programs (and not just from libraries) led to a bit of burnout.” Others pointed to the challenges of furloughs and limited staffing, tight budgets, and general exhaustion. While candid about the year’s challenges, many were also hopeful, and eager to continue supporting their communities and each other.
But perhaps one of the biggest roles libraries played was in asking them to do what they do best: To connect people to the information they need. 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. In 2020, libraries offered everything from parking lot hot spots to curbside pickup to distance educational programming and online resources. Tutwiler looks back with pride, noting how hard the library’s staff worked when they “were given an impossible task, serving the public without interacting with the public.”
The 1918 influenza pandemic had a profound impact on how librarians do their work, giving them a chance to reevaluate what was working and what wasn’t in old models. What changes might we see after COVID? More remote services, permanent curbside pickup? The combination of the pandemic and the end of the war was profound, resulting in widespread and lasting changes to the core of librarianship itself. Only time will tell what, if any, core values will change in the ongoing effort to connect communities with information.