As designated essential disaster services, libraries are poised to serve a role in the national response to the Coronavirus and COVID-19. Some changes to libraries as a public gathering place may be temporarily required, but our mission of sharing information will likely continue unchanged. They will remain great resources to access credible medical information and connect to resources to help you and your community.
Libraries: Open for Information
Your local library is a great place to turn for information about COVID-19, the disease caused by the Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Not only are libraries a trusted source of vetting information, there is a long history of libraries as a destination for answers to health questions.
In the case of a public health situation like the COVID-19 outbreak, your local library is especially beneficial because it is local. In the United States, public health is addressed at a county level with statewide organizations. That means your local library is typically already connected to the local public health officials. Depending on local measures put into place, some changes to library programs may be required, but online services like medical databases, eBooks, digital audiobooks, will still be accessible with a library card allowing you to find credible information and even entertainment.
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Making Sense of the Science
Librarians can help the public navigate the potentially confusing world of health information. As with many professions, doctors have a tendency to use words that sound familiar in very specific ways. For example, if you heard an update from doctors at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) talking about COVID-19 becoming widespread in the United States, it may not mean what you think it does.
Did you know that right now the flu is widespread throughout the United States everywhere except Oregon and Hawaii? Does that mean that a majority of us have the flu? Not at all. In New York the word “widespread” in terms of the flu means that there are “2 or more cases of laboratory-confirmed influenza per 100,000 population” in at least half of the counties in the state. The flu is widespread in New York if 0.002 percent of people test positive for the virus.
So when the CDC says COVID-19 will likely become widespread in our country it doesn’t mean we are all going to get sick. But unless that medically-worded pronouncement is translated into regular language it can certainly seem scary.
The Need for Trusted Sources
Browsing Facebook, Reddit, or other social media today, it can seem like things are a bit bleak with respect to the Coronavirus. Part of the problem is that social media acts like an echo chamber that reinforces particular messages through confirmation bias. How many posts have you read recently about people that are not prepping for collapse? Yet all of those numbers get forgotten in the face of the over-amplified stories of those that are. Instead of focusing on individual experiences or amplifying speculation, libraries are sharing trusted sources of health information. All you have to do is simply contact your local library. If you don't know the contact information or address of your local library, worldcat is a fantastic source.
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Other sites may have information that is simply wrong. Misinformation may be spread intentionally as a way to drive purchasing of advertised products or for other reasons. So how can you tell if what a site is saying is considered wrong? Many libraries turn to NewsGuard, a transparent and diverse team of journalists that rate news sources and specific stories. NewsGuard has a Coronavirus Misinformation Tracking Center where libraries (or you!) can check up on sites.
Libraries are a natural fit when it comes to the need for accurate information about COVID-19. Long trusted resources like Medline Plus, provided through the National Library of Medicine and accessible with a library card are a regular staple for librarians helping patrons with health questions and have already updated pages on COVID-19. Libraries are also curating emerging sources like the World Health Organization’s (WHO) myth busting questions and answers. So, if you read that sesame oil will protect you from the Coronavirus, you might want to check with your local library for guidance on where to find other trusted sources of information.