The coronavirus pandemic, libraries and information: a thematic analysis of initial international responses to COVID-19

Marc Kosciejew (Department of Library Information and Archive Sciences, University of Malta, Msida, Malta)

Global Knowledge, Memory and Communication

ISSN: 2514-9342

Article publication date: 12 August 2020

Issue publication date: 28 May 2021

2878

Abstract

Purpose

This study aims to present and discuss the international library and information community’s initial responses to the coronavirus pandemic. It chronicles official statements from various library and information associations as they were released in real-time, thereby providing a contemporary and historical snapshot of the early stages of this global health crisis. The aim is to both historically and thematically contextualize these initial responses to help establish a foundation upon which to anchor, build, extend and analyze approaches to the pandemic as it unfolded (and indeed as it continues to unfold at the time of this writing in June 2020).

Design/methodology/approach

Drawing upon a qualitative documentary analysis of statements on COVID-19 released by various international library and information associations, this study provides a thematic analysis of these contemporary policies. Specifically, this thematic analysis was carried out to identify and illuminate major themes appearing within the statements. Further, a comparative thematic analysis was then undertaken to compare the themes across all statements to discover and determine convergences or divergences in content and coverage.

Findings

The formal statements released by these organizations feature and share many similar themes in their initial responses to COVID-19, including support for/solidarity with libraries; information provision; maintaining services; digital migration of services; workplace arrangements/concerns; contextual contingencies of libraries (diversity of kinds, circumstances and challenges); health concerns and proper/good hygiene; countering dis/misinformation; external collaborations with public health agencies; and partnerships with industry including publishers.

Research limitations/implications

Although this study’s purview is admittedly limited in size and scope – involving six, albeit major, library and information associations from mainly English speaking countries – it can be used as a foundation for further studies into how libraries and information centres in other English and non-English speaking countries responded to the coronavirus pandemic.

Practical implications

This study can help inform current, alternative, contingency or other future library responses geared towards or tailored for the coronavirus or other health-related crises. It can also be used as a baseline to track the trajectory of library responses and actions as they unfolded throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

Social implications

By providing the start of an account and analysis of the international library and information science (LIS) community’s initial responses, this study also contributes to the broader (ongoing) conversation about the coronavirus pandemic and intervenes in emerging historical examinations of this crisis. This study could be of interest to LIS scholars and practitioners, in addition to public health researchers, public policymakers, cultural studies academics and historians, interested in how different and intersectional efforts – in this case, the international LIS community – contributed and can contribute to this pandemic and other similar or parallel crises.

Originality/value

The international library and information community’s initial responses to this global health crisis are contextualized, thereby serving as a foundation upon which to anchor, build and extend other research on responses to the pandemic as it unfolded. Drawing upon a qualitative documentary analysis of these statements, this study presents and discusses the international library community’s initial responses to the coronavirus pandemic. It chronicles these statements as they were released in real-time, thereby providing a contemporary and historical snapshot of the early stages of this crisis. The aim is to both historically and thematically contextualize the international library and information community’s initial responses to help establish a foundation upon which to anchor, build, extend and update the international library community’s responses to the pandemic as it unfolded (and indeed as it continues to unfold at the time of this writing in June 2020). This foundation, it is hoped, will help illuminate their respective positions, circumstances, convergences, divergences and areas of possible (future) cooperation, coordination and collaboration.

Keywords

Citation

Kosciejew, M. (2021), "The coronavirus pandemic, libraries and information: a thematic analysis of initial international responses to COVID-19", Global Knowledge, Memory and Communication, Vol. 70 No. 4/5, pp. 304-324. https://doi.org/10.1108/GKMC-04-2020-0041

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited


Introduction: Early and emerging responses to COVID-19

During the first half of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic upended the world. Its shocking spread and ravaging effects affected every region on earth. The coronavirus (also known interchangeably as COVID-19) caused serious global socioeconomic disruption as governments imposed increasingly severe shutdowns, quarantines, curfews, closures, cancellations and other restrictive controls on their countries, citizens, institutions, facilities and general daily life in efforts to curb, contain and prevent its ongoing expansion. Emerging in China in December 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern” for the world on 30 January 2020 (WHO “statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV)”, 2020). Within less than two months, on 11 March 2020, the WHO declared the spreading coronavirus as a global pandemic (WHO “WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 11 March 2020”, 2020). Shortly thereafter, the international library and information science (LIS) community began responding to this global health crisis.

COVID-19 is a highly infectious disease – caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) – that (as of this writing in June 2020) continues spreading “very easily and sustainably between people” [centers for disease control and prevention (CDC), “how COVID-19 spreads”]. It is primarily transmitted during close contact by coughing, sneezing, and talking; it can also be contracted from touching contaminated surfaces and then subsequently touching one’s face (CDC, “how COVID-19 spreads”). Ranging from mild to severe, symptoms can include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches and loss of taste or smell (CDC, “symptoms of coronavirus”). Preventative and protective measures include social distancing, washing hands, wearing cloth masks or other face coverings concealing the mouth and nose and routinely cleaning and disinfecting surfaces (CDC, “how COVID-19 spreads”). Presently, there remains no known vaccine or targeted antiviral treatment.

Beginning on 13 March 2020 and throughout the subsequent two weeks, some of the world’s leading library and information associations directly acknowledged and addressed the pandemic. Formal statements on the crisis were released by the American Library Association (ALA), (2020), the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA), (2020), Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), Library Association of Ireland (LAI), (2020) and Library and Information Association of South Africa (LIASA), (2020). Each statement recognized the then-escalating crisis, acknowledged its effects on libraries, information centres and their communities and outlined various early approaches to mitigate and diminish the pandemic’s impacts.

Drawing upon a qualitative documentary analysis of these statements, this article presents and discusses the international library and information community’s initial responses to the coronavirus pandemic. It chronicles these statements as they were released in real-time, thereby providing a contemporary and historical snapshot of the early stages of this crisis. The aim is to both historically and thematically contextualize the international library community’s initial responses to help establish a foundation upon which to anchor, build, extend and update the international library community’s responses to the pandemic as it unfolded (and indeed as it continues to unfold at the time of this writing in June 2020). This foundation, it is hoped, will help illuminate their respective positions, circumstances, convergences, divergences and areas of possible (future) cooperation, coordination and collaboration.

By providing the start of an account and analysis of the international LIS community’s initial responses, this article also contributes to the broader (ongoing) conversation about the coronavirus pandemic and intervenes in emerging historical examinations of this crisis. This article could be of interest to LIS scholars and practitioners, in addition to public health researchers, public policymakers, cultural studies academics and historians, interested in how different and intersectional efforts – in this case, the international LIS community – contributed and can contribute to this pandemic and other similar or parallel crises. Ultimately, there are twin hopes for this article’s intervention in helping address this pandemic from a LIS perspective. Firstly, it is hoped that it will humbly contribute to supporting and showing solidarity with the wider library and information community as it responds to and deals with this crisis confronting the world. Secondly, it is also hoped that it can help reinforce the importance of libraries and information in periods of crisis. When there is turbulence, libraries and information centres often rise to the challenge by supporting their communities and assisting other agencies addressing the turbulence.

The following discussion is arranged into five main sections. The first section outlines the methodological approach taken for this study. The second section offers a brief literature review noting some of the important interventions that libraries and information centres (can) make in advancing public health, as well as preparing for and responding to emergencies and disasters such as pandemics. The third section presents the timeline of the statements as they were separately released over nearly two weeks in mid-late March 2020, specifically 13 March 2020 to 24 March 2020. It further identifies the major themes appearing within and across these statements and provides an interpretative thematic analysis of their content, coverage and convergences. The fourth section discusses implications for further research on COVID-19, libraries and information. The article concludes on a hopeful note by reinforcing the importance of libraries and information in times of crises and appealing for their continued operations during this pandemic and other crises.

Approaching and analyzing the COVID-19 statements

Documentary analysis of written texts was used to approach the international library and information community’s initial responses to the coronavirus pandemic. This analysis “entails finding, selecting, appraising and synthesizing data contained in documents. Document analysis yields data – excerpts, quotations or entire passages – that are then organized into major themes categories and case examples specifically through content analysis” (Bowen, 2009, p. 28). A content or thematic analysis entails examining “the data collected, in written or other format and […] [summarizes] it and draw out key points by identifying recurrent themes (which may change and develop and be re-labelled and amalgamated, as the analysis proceeds). Examples (quotations) are then typically selected to illustrate these themes” (Tight, 2019, p. 158). Or put differently, “thematic analyzes move beyond counting explicit words or phrases and focus on identifying and describing both implicit and explicit ideas within the data, that is, themes. Codes are then typically developed to represent the identified themes and applied or linked to raw data as summary markers for later analysis” (Guest et al., 2012, p. 10).

Specifically, a mixture of qualitative analytical approaches was adopted for this article’s exploration of the coronavirus pandemic, libraries and information. A thematic analysis of contemporary policy was carried out – in this case, of formal statements released by these similar organizations – to inductively identify and illuminate major themes appearing within each statement. A comparative thematic analysis was then undertaken to compare the themes appearing within and across all statements to further identify shared or similar themes held in common between the statements.

As this global health crisis was unfolding throughout the first quarter of 2020, and particularly during mid-late March as its spread intensified and the international library and information community began addressing it in real-time, the formal statements, issued digitally on their respective official websites, were sought out, visited and viewed. The first stage of thematic analysis involved multiple readings of the statements to become familiar with their messages, and with each subsequent reading, to begin identifying emerging themes and then (re)confirming them. These multiple readings specifically examined the content of each statement and ultimately established the corpus for the following thematic analysis of each identified theme. The second stage highlighted, grouped together and connected relevant textual extracts from each document to identify and construct a catalogue or series of themes. The third stage summarized the extracted data classified within each identified theme to enable a critical interpretation of their meanings. The final stage compared identified themes across the statements to discover, locate and discuss thematic convergences and/or divergences between them.

There are, admittedly, restrictions to this article’s purview, specifically its small sample size and its focus on (mainly) English-speaking organizations. Also, while library and information associations of diverse stripes contribute in important ways to the LIS discipline and professional field, this article further limits it scope to associations adopting general or inclusive memberships and agendas. Put differently, the article examines associations that aim to advocate for and represent the wider library and information community within their country or region rather than an academic, professional, sector or interest-specific concentration. The criteria for selecting these statements, therefore included: firstly, English-speaking (or English as one of its official languages); secondly, generalist or inclusive membership and agenda, instead of an academic, professional sector or interest-specific organization and thirdly, a coronavirus pandemic-related statement had to be issued at some point during the first quarter of 2020.

Thus, six such library associations, each generally focussing on the broad library and information field or community within their countries or regions, were chosen, namely, the major one from North America (ALA) that also arguably holds considerable sway in the international library sphere; one from the Australasia/South Pacific region (ALIA); one from Africa (LIASA); one from Europe (LAI); one from the UK (CILIP); and the main umbrella international library and information association representing all countries and regions (IFLA). Additionally, these statements represent the library and information associations that were immediately recognizing and addressing the pandemic in real-time during this precise critical stage (mid-late March 2020) of its alarming spread.

Although this article focusses on the initial responses of various international library and information associations to the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, it is useful to more broadly contextualize the important roles played by libraries in public health, as well as emergency and disaster situations. Let us now briefly situate this article’s coverage within the wider LIS literature.

Libraries’ interventions in public health, emergencies and disasters

Admittedly, this article does not aim to present a detailed literature review or in-depth discussion of the important roles played by libraries and other information centres in public health, emergencies or disasters. Contextualizing libraries’ and other information centres’ roles in public health and emergency and disaster scenarios, nevertheless, helps illuminate their significance in strengthening individual health, communal well-being and informational and humanitarian assistance during emergencies and upheavals.

To begin, the health and well-being of communities can be bolstered by libraries and information centres and their contributions to public health efforts and initiatives. There is a rich literature on libraries’ and information centres’ addressing, anticipating and responding to diverse health information literacies and needs of individuals and communities (Dalrymple and Galvin, 2020; Flaherty, 2013; Flaherty and Grier, 2014; Grier, 2010; Kosciejew, 2020; Linnan et al., 2004; Luo, 2018; Morgan et al., 2016; Morgan et al., 2017; Morgan et al., 2018; Rubenstein, 2016a, 2016b, 2018; Whiteman et al., 2018; Whitney et al., 2013; Yong, 2015).

Libraries, and particularly public libraries, “can provide free access to credible, quality health information to help inform individuals about their personal health, as well as inform their communities about health issues, treatments and other resources” (Kosciejew, 2020, p. 7). Although “health has not historically been at the centre of their missions, libraries occupy a unique place in public life, making them powerful partners for building a culture of health” (Morgan et al., 2016, p. 2033). Yet, “the missions of public health and public libraries are complementary, as both seek to positively influence the health and well-being of defined communities” (Linnan et al., 2004, p. 189). They can help promote healthy lives and improve the well-being of their local communities by making available and accessible health information resources, services and programmes; in so doing, they broaden access to health information and knowledge, increase individual and communal health awareness, improve public health literacy, reduce health disparities and strengthen overall public health.

The provision of quality health information, in fact, is typically of major interest to many public library patrons (Luo, 2018; Luo and Park, 2013; Whiteman et al., 2018; Zionts et al., 2010). For many people, in fact, “the public library is often the first place [they] consult when seeking information on important health topics, such as health-care coverage eligibility, disease prevention and treatment” (Luo, 2018, pp. 233-234). Public libraries, moreover, can serve as partners with local hospitals and health care agencies in contributing to public health efforts and initiatives. Indeed “as centres for community engagement and education, public libraries provide ideal spaces for the transfer of health information, making them logical choices as partners for improving population health” (Whiteman et al., 2018, p. 1). As community and information hubs, they serve as critical conduits for hospitals and health care agencies to reach out to, connect with and better understand the health information needs of individuals and communities.

During times of emergency or disaster, meanwhile, libraries can make crucial interventions in and contributions to assistance efforts. There is considerable literature on these interventions and contributions (Beales, 2003; Bishop and Veil, 2013; Chancellor, 2017, 2019; Dickerson, 2007; Featherstone, 2012; Featherstone et al., 2008; Featherstone et al., 2012; Fleischer and Heppner, 2009; Green and Teper, 2008; Han, 2019; Jaeger et al., 2006; Kosciejew, 2019; Liu et al., 2017; Prestamo, 2018; Pilston, 2004; Rattan, 2013; Robertson, 2014; Stewart, 2014; Wong and Green, 2007; Young, 2018; Zach, 2011). Libraries can play multiple roles in emergency or disaster situations, including as “institutional supporters, collection managers, information disseminators, internal planners, community supporters, government partners, educators and trainers and information community builders” (Featherstone et al., 2008).

Libraries can also serve as vital partners with health authorities in health crises and pandemics. For example, Featherstone et al. (2012) examine the pandemic information needs of hospitals and the efforts of health sciences libraries in meeting these needs during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic. Health care librarians gather emerging and relevant health information, evaluate pandemic information services and deliver concise information summaries to meet health care staff and administrators’ “urgent need for high-quality evidence during the response phase of an infectious outbreak” (Featherstone et al., 2012). Health sciences libraries and health care librarians, they argue, should be integrated into hospitals and health care organizations’ pandemic and more generally emergency and disaster planning and responses.

Pandemic preparedness policies and procedures for libraries are receiving increased attention in LIS scholarship and practice. The ALA’s “pandemic preparedness: resources for libraries”, for instance, suggests diverse policies and procedures for responding to and meeting the challenges of pandemics. It notes that “many of the resources are specific to influenza outbreaks, but can [still] be used more universally to help educate and inform decisions on pandemic prevention and preparedness” (ALA “pandemic preparedness”). It offers various topics to include in library policies on pandemic prevention, preparedness and other health-related issues, such as criteria for closing libraries, social distancing measures, safe hygiene practices and continuing information provision throughout a crisis. It further provides recommendations for some coronavirus-specific professional development and training resources.

There are also other useful resources for libraries and disaster preparedness. The National Library of Medicine in the USA has a devoted Disaster Information Management Research Center (DIMRC), (2020), to help librarians, particularly, medical and health librarians, plan and prepare for emergency and disaster situations. The DIMRC offers specific resources and recommendations for infectious diseases from Ebola to the Zika Virus to other pandemic influenzas such as H1N1 and H7N9. Further, it provides a “Disaster Information Specialist Programme” promoting “the role of information specialists in the provision of disaster-related health information resources” (DIMRC, “about the Disaster Information Specialist Programme”).

Perhaps the most current and comprehensive list (as of June 2020) of library and information resources concentrating exclusively on COVID-19 is the “COVID-19 and the global library field” webpage compiled by IFLA (www.ifla.org/covid-19-and-libraries). This list provides key resources for libraries and information centres responding to the coronavirus pandemic, including on managing different approaches to restrictions, providing services remotely and, recently (as of May and June 2020), reopening procedures.

But the coronavirus pandemic, especially in its early stages of the first quarter of 2020, represented an emerging, rapidly evolving situation that caught much of the world, including the international library and information community, by unwelcome surprise. What were the initial responses of this community in assessing and dealing with this sudden and fast-moving emergency?

As it happened: a timeline and thematic analysis of the COVID-19 statements

Initial formal responses to this pandemic by international library and information associations began emerging within the brief but rapidly changing period of mid-late March 2020. The following list presents a compressed timeline of the release dates of these statements, starting on Friday 13 March 2020 through Tuesday 24 March 2020. While these statements were accessed by the author on the actual dates of their release, the CILIP statement, as of June 2020, changed parts of its organization and formatting. These alterations have presumably been made because the website is fluid, providing continual updates on this fast-moving situation. These release dates are as follows:

  • 13 March: ALA’s “ALA Statement on COVID-19”.

  • 18 March: CILIP’s “statement concerning COVID-19 and knowledge, library and information professionals from the CILIP Board”.

  • 18 March: LIASA’s “statement by the LIASA President”.

  • 20 March: ALIA’s “message from the ALIA Board”.

  • 23 March: IFLA’s “COVID-19 and the Global Library Field: Statement by the IFLA President and Secretary-General”.

  • 24 March: LAI’s “a message to LAI membership”.

There are some differences between these statements. Firstly, they were issued separately by different associations with different memberships, agendas and COVID-19 circumstances; they nonetheless share the common ground of advocating for and representing the wider library and information communities within their respective countries or regions. Secondly, these statements were not coordinated in release dates nor aligned in specific content or messages. Yet, they still share the same concern of responding directly to the coronavirus pandemic and, importantly, many similar and related themes in their responses. Thirdly, these statements have varying degrees of coverage. CILIP’s statement, for instance, is by far the most detailed (at over 2,500 words) whereas ALIA is the least detailed (at just over 300 words). While the former provides detailed descriptions, explanations and examples of CILIP’s responses to the crisis, the latter outlines the general advice and approaches being undertaken by ALIA in those early days of the pandemic’s ongoing expansion.

Notwithstanding these differences, there is broad thematic convergence in these responses to COVID-19. Altogether, there are 10 main themes identified within these statements. Some of these themes are shared by all the statements, others appear in most but not all statements and still others are displayed in only a couple of statements. The identified themes are:

  1. Support for/solidarity with libraries: this theme involves the associations’ explicit expressions of support and solidarity for libraries, especially the libraries comprising their membership and communities, during this challenging time.

  2. Information provision: this theme involves the associations’ recommendation that information provision remains a top priority for their memberships throughout the crisis.

  3. Maintaining services: this theme involves the associations’ encouragement for their members to continue as many of their regular services as much as possible despite the pandemic’s many disruptions.

  4. Digital migration of services: this theme involves the associations’ suggestion that their members migrate their services, to the extent reasonable and possible, remotely, which mainly meant shifting to digital platforms.

  5. Workplace arrangements/concerns: this theme involves the associations’ recognition that the pandemic is forcing/has forced (temporary) closures and other restrictive social distancing measures that have, in turn, increased workplace anxieties and stress; in these scenarios, the associations’ encourage their members to make special arrangements or adjustments – to the extent possible – to address these concerns whilst complying with government mandates.

  6. Contextual contingencies of libraries (diversity of kinds, circumstances, challenges): this theme involves the associations’ observation that, although sharing many commonalities, their members nonetheless are diverse, each with its own particular and local settings, features, capacities, needs and issues.

  7. Health concerns and proper/good hygiene: this theme involves the associations’ realization that members will have legitimate concerns about the health and safety of their workplaces and encourages accommodating these concerns whilst ensuring good hygiene is practiced by both staff and users.

  8. Countering dis/misinformation: this theme involves the associations’ advice for their members to be alert to the pandemic’s accompanying spread of fake news/information and to continue their efforts at countering this post-truth scourge by presenting authoritative, credible and factual information, especially health and coronavirus-related information, during the pandemic.

  9. External collaborations with public health agencies: this theme involves the associations’ highlighting their collaborations with their local and/or national public health agencies in assisting in making available and accessible, and also managing, information to their users, as well as the wider public to inform them of local and national health and COVID-19 updates.

  10. Partnerships with industry including publishers: this theme involves the associations’ presenting their partnerships with industry partners, such as publishers and other information providers, in expanding (free or subsidized) access to different information services/resources during the crisis.

The following outline illuminates some specific quotes and sections from which these identified themes appeared in the statements. Some of these quotes and sections appear in multiple themes because of their intersectional content. The point is to provide direct examples of the identified themes from the documents themselves. Additionally, “Table 1: Identified themes appearing across library statements”, below, provides a reference guide showing which identified theme appears in each statement.

Support for/solidarity with libraries

  • ALA: “the ALA is committed to supporting its members, staff and all librarians and library workers during these uncertain times”; “as your professional organization, we commend you and seek to support your work through regular updates”; “please stay in touch with ALA and tell us how we can be of further support”.

  • ALIA: “the ALIA board supports library leaders across the country who are having to make difficult decisions”; “as the situation unfolds we will do more – and we welcome any suggestions you have about information or resources, which would support you”.

  • CILIP: “CILIP is committed to supporting our members in all aspects of their work, including understanding and managing the emerging impact of COVID-19 and coronavirus on library, information and knowledge services”.

  • IFLA: “on behalf of IFLA, we wish all the best to those coping with disruption and difficulty in their lives”.

  • LAI: “it is important for us as a profession to be there to support each other. Camaraderie will be more important than ever in these anxious times”; “a Zoom account has been set up by the LAI and will be available for all groups, sections and meetings. This will allow for connectivity within our profession – it is important for us all to stay in touch. We will also aim to communicate via our social media channels, website and by Zoom meetings”.

  • LIASA: “LIASA is committed to supporting LIASA members, LIASA staff, LIS workers and LIS users during these uncertain times”.

Information provision

  • ALA: “we are stewards of accurate information. We connect library users with local public health resources and services”; “ensure that library users and non-users alike know about the valuable resources libraries have to offer, such as support for teachers and students engaging in online instruction; access to hotspots, ebooks, subscriptions to online magazines and news sources; and curated lists to COVID-19 news and examples of best-practice responses”.

  • ALIA: “libraries are adapting, promoting digital resources and accurate information”; “you will see on the ALIA website that […] [there] is also a regularly updated list of resources”.

  • CILIP: “we recommend following the following information sources for regularly-updated and authoritative information on the development and spread of the virus”.

  • IFLA: libraries “are providing valuable collections of reliable information on coronavirus to give people a source they can trust”; “in addition to our frequently asked questions webpage about our own response, we are regularly answering questions from members. From today we are also sharing a page – regularly updated – with information we have about nationwide library closures and a range of ideas drawn from the experience of libraries in different settings”.

  • LAI: “librarians are continuing to […] [provide] access to accurate information”.

  • LIASA: “at this time library and information services have a critical role to play in the dissemination of legitimate news and information and actively battle fake news”.

Maintaining services

  • ALA: “we know that in times of crisis, libraries of all kinds play invaluable roles in supporting their communities both in person and virtually”; “serving our communities during the pandemic”; “we also applaud the numerous examples of librarians creating rapid response information sources and serving on community-wide task forces to help with messaging, information resources and other preparedness measures. We know many of you are doing the hard work on the ground right now”; “librarians […] in many cases, are on the front lines of this outbreak”.

  • ALIA: “libraries are adapting, promoting digital resources and accurate information, as well as offering innovative virtual services to support their communities”; “the ALIA team is posting changes to library services across Australia on an hourly basis, to help inform local decisions about service cancellations, reductions and library closures”.

  • CILIP: libraries should “ensure the best possible continuity of service to their users and communities through this challenging period”; “we advise all library, information and knowledge services to prepare an Action Plan to minimize disruption in the event of full or partial closure to users”; “how best to respond: If your library, information or knowledge service is remaining open […] [or] If your library, information or knowledge service is to be fully-closed”.

  • IFLA: “libraries around the world have mobilized”; “they are providing valuable collections of reliable information […] [and] are strengthening the capacity of digital libraries”; “library associations too have stepped up, providing resources for their members to plan and respond, providing online training and collating the latest information to support decision-making by their members”; “we are very proud of the way the library field is responding and know that we have the resilience, creativity and sense of service to continue to do the best possible for the communities that rely on us in these difficult times”.

  • LAI: “difficult decisions have and will have to be taken, librarians are continuing to support their communities in innovative ways”.

  • LIASA: “in the current circumstances it is vital that we all come together to allow reading, learning and research to continue and to ensure that we can minimize the long-term effects of the outbreak on our cultures, societies and economies”; “LIASA calls on all employers to find innovative solutions that will allow for the continuation of LIS services”; “we urge everyone to find innovative and creative solutions to promoting the use of Libraries”.

Digital migration of services

  • ALIA: “libraries are adapting, promoting digital resources and accurate information, as well as offering innovative virtual services to support their communities”.

  • CILIP: “there are already opportunities for most library and information workers to continue to provide many of their essential services, and provide their specialized skillset via online and remote access. Making best use of these opportunities should both minimize any disruption to services”; “we acknowledge that closing libraries for public access does not mean shutting down services and are working with sector organizations to promote the transition to the provision of online services”.

  • IFLA: libraries are “strengthening the capacity of digital libraries and extending opportunities for eLending and accessing online resources”.

  • LAI: librarians are “promoting digital resources, facilitating remote group engagement such as online bookclubs, storytelling via social media”.

Workplace arrangements/concerns

  • ALA: “decision-makers will need to weigh the well-being of staff, library users and the community when making changes to library service hours, programmes or policies”.

  • ALIA: “while for many staff, health is the major concern, we also know that a significant number of you work on a casual basis and are worried about how you will make ends meet if you have reduced hours or your library closes altogether”; “we have put in place work-from-home procedures for ALIA employees”.

  • CILIP: “CILIP fully supports these institutions in the responsible steps being taken to balance their individual organizational situation with the welfare and needs of their staff, users and the public at large”; “library and knowledge services are already adapting their working practices to enable them to maintain their service while following the expert advice being offered to reduce the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) among their users and staff”; “CILIP calls on all host institutions to follow National Health Service (NHS) and government guidance to reduce the spread of COVID-19, and to transparently engage with their staff to inform and discuss with them the best response to ensure the welfare of their staff and service users”.

  • IFLA: “many [libraries] have been obliged to close temporarily or reduce services to a minimum to contribute to efforts to limit the spread of the disease. Hard decisions are being made about how best to provide access to information without compromising the safety of library users and staff”; “library workers are already having to adapt to major restrictions on their movement and other activities, along with the citizens they serve”.

  • LAI: “managers are thinking about the health and well-being of their staff, and how they can minimize their teams’ exposure to the Coronavirus”.

  • LIASA: “LIASA calls on all employers to seek a balance between maintaining the library and information services to the public while protecting the staff”; “we remind LIS staff of their obligations to their employers and to engage with them on the specifics of their situation”; LIASA advises LIS workers to follow the advice, information and guidance of their institutions in respect of the responses to combatting COVID-19 and to flattening the curve”.

Contextual contingencies of libraries (diversity of kinds, circumstances, challenges

  • ALA: “decision-makers will need to weigh the well-being of staff, library users and the community when making changes to library service hours, programmes or policies given their local contexts”.

  • ALIA: “the ALIA Board supports library leaders across the country who are having to make difficult decisions about whether to keep libraries open to support students, educators, researchers, health professionals, people without digital access at home and those who would feel an intense sense of loss if they were not able to visit their local library”.

  • CILIP: “CILIP recognizes that the Information Profession covers an extremely broad range of organizations and that library and knowledge workers may face extremely different situations, requirements and concerns depending on the nature of their organizations. Because of this, it is not possible for CILIP to offer a “blanket statement” that will fit every organization”; “sector-by-sector statements on Coronavirus and libraries”.

  • LAI: “each sector of our profession is offering supports within their resources”.

  • LIASA: “library and information workers are on the frontline as they serve their communities be it public, school, academic or special libraries”.

Health concerns and proper/good hygiene

  • ALA: “if libraries stay open, they should follow CDC recommendations for environmental cleaning and disinfection. They should also encourage their staff and users to take basic steps to avoid spreading germs, including: washing your hands […] avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth […] avoiding close contact with people […] staying home when you are sick […] covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue”.

  • ALAI: “managers are thinking about the health and well-being of their staff and how they can minimize their teams’ exposure to the Coronavirus”.

  • CILIP: “we encourage everyone in this position to maintain social distancing, follow guidance for good hygiene and be vigilant for the symptoms of the virus”; “consider providing posters sharing current NHS advise on hand hygiene and handwashing, provide hand gel or signpost handwashing points for all users and staff, provide wipes for keyboards and other shared equipment, ensure that offices and public spaces are cleaned regularly and thoroughly”.

  • LIASA: “LIASA encourages a responsible, calm, approach to combating the virus and asks the LIS sector to maintain social distancing, to institute and enforce good hygiene practices and be vigilant for the symptoms of the virus”; “social distancing (maintaining spaces of 1 m to 2 m per person); limiting gatherings to 100 people; regular hygiene practices including washing hands for 20 s or more must be in place”; “self-isolation is highly encouraged”.

Countering dis/misinformation

  • ALA: “we can play a role in not only slowing the spread of the disease but also the spread of misinformation. Point library users to vital websites such as the WHO, CDC, local public health websites and other trusted sources. Consider putting up COVID-19 resources on your library’s home page”.

  • CILIP: “if you are concerned about any misinformation that may be in circulation concerning COVID-19, refer to the coronavirus misinformation tracker provided by Newsguard”.

  • LIASA: “at this time library and information services have a critical role to play in the dissemination of legitimate news and information and actively battle fake news”.

External collaborations with public health agencies

  • ALA: “we also applaud the numerous examples of librarians creating rapid response information sources and serving on community-wide task forces to help with messaging, information resources and other preparedness measures”.

  • IFLA: “special libraries, in particular those working with public health agencies and research centres and in the broader health sector, are very active, helping to manage information and support efforts to strengthen understanding of developments”.

  • LAI: “many of you are supporting our health professionals in the areas of contact tracing and research. Others are providing venues and services to support the national effort to contain the virus. Public librarians are supporting our colleagues in emergency local authority services”.

Partnerships with industry including publishers

  • ALIA: “there is […] a special agreement on copyright for library storytimes, and special arrangements for diploma industry placements to help our LIS students”.

  • IFLA: “we are confident that our industry partners– publishers, vendors, suppliers – will work with us to provide the necessary assurances to allow libraries to continue to provide access to information and culture”; “in particular, we welcome special arrangements that enable virtual storytimes to take place, provide open access to articles related to COVID-19, and facilitate remote access to academic publications and articles to help learning and research continue even as university libraries are forced to close”.

Nearly half of the identified themes (four out of the ten themes) are shared by all six statements. Firstly, the theme of “support for/solidarity with libraries” appears across the responses. Each association expresses clear and unequivocal support for its respective library community, from librarians and leaders to patrons and the public, during the pandemic. In fact, this support is recognized as particularly important during “these uncertain times” (ALA, 2020) of “disruption and difficulty” (IFLA 2020); hence, in this anxious time of COVID-19, “camaraderie will be more important than ever” (LAI, 2020).

The second theme held in common is “information provision”, specifically the need for continuing to make information available and accessible to the associations’ respective members, users and in some cases public. Libraries “have a critical role to play in […] [information] dissemination” (LIASA, 2020), as they are “stewards of accurate information […] [connecting] library users with local public health resources and services” (ALA, 2020). Each statement illuminated the important ways in which librarians and other information professionals assist individuals to navigate and satisfy information needs and how this help is particularly required during the pandemic and other crises.

The third theme appearing across all statements is “maintaining services”, particularly keeping regular library and information services operating to the extent reasonable and possible during the pandemic and its accompanying closures, reduced operations and hours and other societal lockdown measures. Although “difficult decisions have and will have to be taken, librarians are continuing to support their communities in innovative ways” (LAI, 2020). Adapting and mobilizing to meet COVID-19’s disruptions, libraries are finding “innovative solutions that will allow for the continuation of LIS services” (LIASA, 2020) to ensure “the best possible continuity of service to their users and communities during this challenging period” (CILIP 2020).

The fourth theme shared by all associations is “workplace arrangements/concerns”. Each statement exhibits various health, service and/or operational-related concerns about workplace arrangements during the pandemic. Many libraries had to implement social distancing measures whilst others had to (temporarily) close, resulting in various workplace worries, including professional anxieties of fulfilling duties and providing services, as well as personal concerns of reduced hours and pay. Many libraries, on the one hand, were trying “to balance their individual organizational situation with the welfare and needs of their staff, users and the public at large” (CILIP 2020). Library staff, on the other hand, were increasingly “worried about how [they would] make ends meet” (ALIA, 2020) because of hour reductions and shutdowns. Each association, however, encourages their members to make reasonable adjustments or (temporary) arrangements balancing workers’ concerns and compliance with government-mandated restrictions.

Featuring in five of the statements is the theme of “contextual contingencies of libraries”. These five statements, excluding IFLA, recognize that their members, whilst sharing similar objectives and issues, are diverse with their own local considerations, capacities and concerns. ALA, for example, argues that decisions regarding the pandemic would be shaped by “local contexts” (ALA, 2020), whilst LAI and LIASA note that different library sectors are responding according to their communities’ particular needs. ALIA, moreover, addressed the different needs of diverse library users, from students and educators to health professionals to people experiencing “an intense sense of loss […] [as they are unable] to visit their local library” (ALIA, 2020). It is because of these contextual contingencies that CILIP could not “offer a “blanket statement” that will fit every organization” (CILIP 2020) and instead outlined “sector-by-sector” (CILIP 2020) overviews and recommendations for their members. Regarding IFLA’s omission of this theme, it could be reasonably presumed that, as it is a global organization representing and advocating for all libraries – regardless of sector, kind, focus, country, of community – it inherently recognizes this theme of contextual contingencies within its very mandate, actions and agitations.

Other themes appearing in the majority of responses – that is four out of the six – include “digital migration of services” and “health concerns and proper/good hygiene”. Most of the associations – ALIA, CILIP, IFLA and LAI – either suggests migrating services, where feasible, online and/or observes the increasing moves to digital platforms and resources being made by their members to continue some services in spite of the pandemic. It is important to note that this theme of digital migration is often accompanied by mentions of remote access and services; however, what “remote” means or entails is left largely unclarified. The LAI statement is the only one that describes what “remote” entails, outlining the need for “facilitating remote group engagement such as online bookclubs [and] storytelling via social media” (2020). Besides this description, presumably, then, “remote” is conflated with “digital”. CILIP, after all, promotes providing services “via online and remote access” (2020). Yet it could also involve other kinds of remote services, such as CILIP’s discussion of home delivery services of physical materials during the pandemic.

Incidentally, ALA and LIASA – the two associations not technically included within this theme, as neither explicitly states the need for “digital migration” – also note the need for “alternative” or “expanded” services without clarifying or explaining what expansion entails. For instance, although the ALA observes that some libraries “are being asked to expand their services at this time” (2020), the statement does not present specific examples or go into further details about this expansion. The LIASA, meanwhile, encourages that its members “provide alternative channels for [their] services to continue even if needs to be on a reduced level” (2020). Both statements, in other words, seemingly touch upon service migration but without specifically explicitly connecting it to digital migration and/or remote access. The statements are somewhat opaque as to what they are exactly referring to or mean. Perhaps it could be assumed that “alternative” or “expanded” services can similarly be conflated with digital migration and/or remote access.

Half of the statements – three out of the six – display the themes of “countering dis/misinformation” and “external collaborations with public health agencies”. These statements discuss how libraries and other information centres are or can collaborate with health authorities and institutions to help organize, manage and provide current or emerging information related to COVID-19. Specifically, the ALA, CILIP and LIASA statements warn of corrosive influence of dis/misinformation about COVID-19 and other pandemic-related issues on (public) attitudes and knowledge. To that end, they reiterate that libraries and information centres play critical roles in disseminating accurate, credible and legitimate news and information and to concomitantly counter fake facts and post-truth narratives about the disease. Each statement consequently recommends advice on and sources for countering these fake facts and post-truth narratives on the disease.

The other theme appearing in half of the statements – “external collaborations with public health agencies” – commends some of the contributions being made by libraries and information centres in helping the public health sector’s attempts to curb and contain the coronavirus. ALA highlights the roles played by some of its members in creating “rapid response information sources” and collaborating with “community-wide task forces to help with a message, information resources and other preparedness measures” (2020). LAI also acknowledges how some of its members are supporting health professionals with various pandemic-related activities such as contact tracing. IFLA, meanwhile, singles out special libraries for their “active” work with the health sector in helping manage information and other similar efforts.

Finally, there is one theme that emerges in less than half of the statements – only two out of the six – namely, “partnerships with industry including publishers”. Partnerships between libraries and various industry parties, such as publishers, vendors and suppliers, for the provision of information products and services during the pandemic are noted by ALIA and IFLA. The former mentions “special arrangements” (ALIA, 2020) made between libraries and industry parties on copyright agreements and LIS student placements. The latter also notes “special arrangements” (IFLA 2020) facilitating access to different information resources, such as academic publications and services, such as virtual story-times. These partnerships, in fact, form part of a broader trend in the publishing industry as many publishers were (beginning to) offer access to parts of their catalogues and other freely available content to their clients, customers and public.

Interestingly, the most closely aligned responses in terms of thematic content are the statements released by ALA, ALIA and CILIP. These three statements share the same number of identified themes – specifically eight out of the ten – and, as a result, represent the statements covering most of the themes overall. Notwithstanding this common ground, there are a few important differences between them, particularly in terms of thematic convergence and coverage. Firstly, there is a difference in release dates, each being issued apart throughout the course of seven days: ALA on 13 March 2020, CILIP on 18 March 2020, and ALIA on 20 March 2020.

The second difference is in thematic content. Although aligning in most of the identified themes – namely, “support for/solidarity with libraries”, “information provision”, “maintaining services”, “workplace arrangements/concerns”, “contextual contingencies of libraries” and “health concerns and proper/good hygiene” – they nonetheless differ in two themes. On the one hand, both ALIA and CILIP, but not ALA, feature “digital migration of services” in their statements; on the other hand, both ALA and CILIP, but not ALIA, feature “countering dis/misinformation”. Meanwhile, ALA, but neither ALIA nor CILIP, mention “external collaborations with public health agencies” and, additionally, ALIA, but not ALA or CILIP, talks about “partnerships with industry”.

The third difference is in degrees of detail and emphasis. While sharing six of the same themes, their descriptions, examples and word counts vary in considerable ways. To begin, the word counts ranges from ALIA’s 328 to ALA’s 882 to CILIP’s 2,763. The larger the word count obviously allows for more detailed discussion. For example, all three statements highlight libraries’ contextual contingencies in regard to their kinds, collections, services and users; however, both the ALA and ALIA statements present general acknowledgement of the different needs of different kinds of libraries whilst the CILIP statement outlines in-depth sector-specific advice and guidance for multiple library settings. As another example, all three statements stress the significance of proper hygiene practices; however, again, the CILIP statement goes into greater detailed recommendations for implementing good hygiene, such as the cleaning of library buildings, keyboards, screens, toys and equipment, as well as on decent personal hygiene habits and even home delivery service sanitation measures.

It is important to note that the longer word count does not always or automatically translate into more extensive coverage. For example, both the ALA and CILIP statements argue for the need to continue providing accurate and trustworthy information during the crisis. The ALA statement more forcefully argues for libraries and librarians, in their roles as trusted information centres and specialists, in helping slow the spread of misinformation. The CILIP statement, meanwhile, only briefly acknowledges dis/misinformation and mentions just one source – the coronavirus misinformation tracker – for individuals to consult if there are concerns about misinformation surrounding the coronavirus.

Implications for further studies on COVID-19, libraries and information

This thematic analysis of initial international responses to COVID-19 by some of the world’s leading library and information associations has numerous implications for possible further studies on the pandemic’s effects on libraries, information and other sociocultural contexts. To begin, this article serves as a historical snapshot of libraries during the early part of the coronavirus pandemic. It helps illuminate how libraries and information centres were beginning to recognize and address the crisis as it happened, capturing their early understandings, perspectives and approaches – as well as their hopes and fears – as the virus quickly spread and so much remained uncertain and unknown.

A foundation is also established upon which to help inform and build other studies on libraries, information and COVID-19 specifically, and other (health) crises generally. It can help inform current, alternative, contingency or other future policies, procedures and programmes geared towards or tailored for COVID-19 or other such crises. It can, in other words, show and inform how cooperation can be increased, approaches can be coordinated and activities can be aligned when dealing with this pandemic or other health crises.

This foundation can also function as a baseline to track the trajectory of library and other information centre responses as they unfolded and changed throughout the COVID-19 crisis. As a baseline, it can be used to analyze how circumstances were perceived and addressed at the beginning, during, ending and after the pandemic; in other words, it can help shed light on how libraries and information centres responded, acted and followed through with their statements. It can help determine what could or should have been done, adjusted or altered and what could be done in future similar crises, in terms of practical, professional and public policies, procedures and programmes. Put differently, it can help reveal or indicate where libraries and other information centres converged and diverged in terms of needs, resources, services, staffing, challenges, risks and opportunities, as well as on where they could assist, contribute to or fill in gaps for each other or other public health and emergency-response agencies.

This article could also be used for exploring the design, development and reception of these statements. For instance, it could help inform research into the statements’ background, such as what, if any, consultations were conducted with members, partners and/or public health authorities in crafting these responses. Or for another possible example, it could help inform research into how the statements were either perceived and/or received by the associations’ members in addition to their users, wider communities and the public.

The identified themes can also be used as a possible starting point for identifying and analyzing similar or different themes in COVID-19 responses released and actions adopted by associated galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) institutions. These themes could also be used to compare and contrast themes in later documents issued by libraries and information centres (or other GLAMs) as they developed or disappeared over time. Indeed, as this article noted earlier, as of June 2020, three months after its original release, the CILIP response had been altered to reflect updated pandemic-related developments. Further, the themes could reveal shared themes with other crises – whether health-related, environmental or human-made – in similar, parallel or different contexts.

As aforementioned, there are some limitations to this article’s purview, specifically its small sample size and focus on (mainly) English-speaking associations. Other or further studies into responses to the pandemic by libraries and information centres could increase the sample size and diversify its composition. Increasing the size and diversifying the sample could involve more library and information associations or perhaps from non-English speaking countries or regions to examine their initial responses. For example, they could look at the initial, ongoing or later responses of library and other information communities in some of COVID-19’s first and/or worst affected countries such as Brazil, China, France, India, Iran, Italy, Peru, Russia, Spain or South Korea.

Conclusion: Mobilizing to meet COVID-19’s challenges

Over nearly two weeks in mid-late March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was rapidly expanding across the globe, the international library and information community began mobilizing to meet COVID-19’s challenges. Starting on 13 March 2020 through to 24 March 2020, some of the world’s leading library associations released formal statements acknowledging the pandemic and addressing their initial responses to and recommendations for dealing with its many complications. These relatively expeditious responses to the even speedier spreading disease demonstrates the international library and information community’s proactive, productive and positive early mobilization efforts to begin adjusting to, and assisting their members, users and communities with quickly changing and challenging circumstances.

Although issued by different associations at both national and international levels with different memberships and agendas, these statements nevertheless feature and share many similar themes in their initial responses to COVID-19. All the statements thematically converge in their support for libraries, as well as for information provision, maintaining services and making special workplace arrangements during this global health crisis. A majority of the statements also thematically converge in recognizing the diverse contexts of libraries and information centres in addition to addressing health concerns, promoting proper hygiene and migration of services online. Additional themes appearing in some of the statements include countering dis/misinformation, collaborating with public health agencies and establishing partnerships with industry parties, including publishers, in offering special deals during the crisis.

This article serves as a foundation upon which to contextualize and examine some of COVID-19’s early effects on libraries, information centres and their communities. It can, therefore, help anchor discussions of when and where libraries and information centres began approaching and how they followed through, adjusted, changed or were otherwise affected – institutionally, professionally, socially, culturally and economically – by the coronavirus pandemic. In other words, it can help measure and compare responses at the beginning, during the middle, at the end of and beyond the crisis. Additional research can therefore build upon, add to, update or extend its coverage and concentration. Further, while this article’s purview is limited in size and scope, it can be used as a point of departure for further studies into how library and information associations and their members in other (non-English speaking) countries responded to COVID-19. Its identified themes, moreover, could be used as a baseline for identifying similar, emerging or different themes in other responses and thematic changes in later statements. Thus, by extension, this article can also be used as a yardstick to compare and contrast other GLAM associations and communities in their responses to reveal where there is convergence and divergence, and hence, inform potential future cooperation.

During the coronavirus pandemic, when so much of society has been quarantined and closed, libraries and information centres continued and are continuing to assist people navigate, discover and retrieve diverse kinds of information. Most libraries and information centres have been physically shuttered as a result of the pandemic, but their many services have been and can be adapted to ensure they remain open, available for and accessible to their communities. Libraries, in other words, remain relevant and urgently needed in this current global health crisis.

Identified themes appearing across library statements

Identified themes ALA ALIA CILIP IFLA LAI LIASA Total number of statements per theme
Support for/solidarity with libraries 6
Information provision 6
Maintaining services 6
Digital migration of services 4
Workplace arrangements/concerns 6
Contextual contingencies of libraries (diversity of kinds, circumstances and challenges) 5
Health concerns and proper/good hygiene 4
Countering dis/misinformation 3
External collaborations with public health agencies 3
Partnerships with industry including publishers 2
Total number of identified themes 8 8 8 7 7 7
Total number of words per statement 882 328 2,763 500 478 515

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Further reading

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019a), “How COVID-19 spreads”, available at: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019b), “Symptoms of coronavirus”, available at: www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html

Matthews, G., Smith, Y. and Knowles, G. (2009), Disaster Management in Archives Libraries and Museums, Ashgate publishing, Surrey.

The Editorial Board (2020), “Here comes the coronavirus pandemic”, The New York Times, available at: www.nytimes.com/2020/02/29/opinion/sunday/corona-virus-usa.html

Corresponding author

Marc Kosciejew can be contacted at: mkosciej@gmail.com

About the author

Dr Marc Kosciejew is a Senior Lecturer and previous Head of Department of Library, Information and Archive Sciences at the University of Malta. He has conducted research worldwide including in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia. He conducted first-hand research in North Korea in 2007 on the country’s library system. He was appointed by Malta’s Minister for Education and Employment as Chairperson of the Malta Libraries Council for 2016-2017, a government-appointed council stipulated in the Malta Libraries Act 2011, to help provide advice on libraries, learning and literacy to senior political and cultural leaders, including the National Librarian of Malta.

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