From the earliest outbreaks of Bubonic plague many centuries ago, to recent outbreaks of Ebola, I started to think about the information resources people had when confronting these crises. There couldn’t have been much during the dark ages in Europe. As people faced overwhelming illness and mortality, if they turned to anyone at all it would have been the Church. Evidence-based medicine was not really a thing yet.
Even relatively recently, libraries couldn’t do much to assist a population faced with an epidemic. In the article In Flew Enza, Nora Quinlan (https://www.jstor.org/stable/27771411) notes that during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic that claimed millions of lives, most libraries Quinlan looked at closed or had dramatic drops in circulation. She writes,
When the flu pandemic hit, many libraries imposed limited access in response to quarantine orders. Across the country, circulation statistics dropped an average of 10%. Libraries already strapped by staff enlistments saw employees sickened, work time lost, and event the death of staff. Library buildings were utilized for projects related to combating the pandemic, including meeting space and work areas for volunteers.
Nothing in the article discusses what type of information resources were provided to the public during the flu epidemic, but it is not a stretch to imagine that with closures and other limitations, it would have been hard for staff to spend the time and energy need to supply health information to anyone.
Technology has produced a massive change in the way libraries can now respond to emergencies, health or otherwise. Even if a library closes, resources can still be made available. And with the rise and insistence on quality evidence-based information, the public has greater access to reliable information. They just need to know how to find it, something the library can continuously assist with.
The National Library of Medicine has Disaster Lit: A database for disaster medicine and public health (https://disasterinfo.nlm.nih.gov/disaster-lit). The CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/index.html). and the National Library of Medicine (https://disasterinfo.nlm.nih.gov/ebola-2014) had information available about Ebola almost immediately as the most resent large-scale outbreak was starting. MedlinePlus (https://medlineplus.gov/) has information on almost every known disease, all made accessible to the general public. Information is also available for other crises that have arisen that many call epidemics. From AIDS (https://aidsinfo.nih.gov/) to Substance Use Disorder (https://envirotoxinfo.nlm.nih.gov/opiate-addiction-and-human-health.html), information is available that is current and reliable. There are many, many other examples. It is not the lack of resources that is now the issue. It is the ability of the public to find and use the best resource.
Libraries now play and important role in epidemics, disasters, and public health. The public needs access and guidance to these resources. The internet is a scary place, especially when it comes to health information. There is too much out there, and much of it is garbage. Libraries need to help educate and disseminate evidence-based, reliable information. This takes time and training of patrons, but libraries have always been a trusted resource. That should be leveraged in the important and daunting task of educating about health. Because it is important that a librarian can help, especially during a crisis.