COVID-19 and the Global Library Field
Last update: 27 March 2020
Key Resources for Libraries in responding to the Coronavirus Pandemic
The information and resources below are provided on a non-exhaustive basis but will be updated regularly. It is based on publicly available information, and that submitted to email@example.com. We welcome additional ideas, references, suggestions and corrections to this address. Please see also our FAQs specifically concerning IFLA.
- Understanding COVID-19 and its spread
- Library closures around the world
- Managing different approaches to restrictions
- Staying safe at home and work
- Providing services remotely
- Managing remote working
- Actions by Associations, National Libraries and Library Partners
- Communicating with users in different languages
- Ongoing issues
Understanding COVID-19 and its Spread
Resources about the disease
Coronavirus refers to a family of viruses. COVID-19 – or Coronavirus Disease – is the infectious disease caused by a newly discovered type of coronavirus.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) has set out, most people infected with the COVID-19 virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. Older people, and those with underlying medical problems like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer are more likely to develop serious illness.
Common symptoms include fever, tiredness and a dry cough. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, aches and pains, sore throat, and very few people will report diarrhoea, nausea or a runny nose.
The best way to prevent and slow down transmission is be well informed about the COVID-19 virus, the disease it causes and how it spreads. The COVID-19 virus spreads primarily through droplets of saliva or discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
Resources about latest cases
National authorities around the world are working to gather information about numbers of tests, infections and consequences. You should turn first to your national authorities for this information, as they should have the most recent data.
The Centre for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University is also maintaining a global map live, including figures on numbers of recovered patients. This is being used regularly in media reporting.
Library closures around the world
Libraries around the world are facing hard choices around which services to offer and how, ranging from minimal restrictions to full closure. We are aware that governments themselves are taking different approaches, sometimes ordering the closure of all institutions, others indicating that life should continue as usual, and others simply leaving decisions up to library directors.
Clearly any decision to restrict services or close a library is a difficult one and needs to be taken following an assessment of the relative risks.
We are currently aware of entire public library systems being closed in the following countries and territories: American Samoa, the Aland Islands, Algeria, Austria, Bangladesh, Croatia, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Guernsey, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Luxembourg, Malaysia, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Spain, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, and the United Kingdom.
Inside the United States, Ithaka S+R is monitoring actions in research libraries (see live results).
Meanwhile, school libraries in 160 countries will have been affected by the closure of all educational institutions, while in others, at least some schools have been closed, according to figures from UNESCO. In many of these, university libraries are also closed.
National libraries too have closed to the public in Albania, Algeria, Andorra, Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belgium, Bolivia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China, Colombia, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Colombia, Denmark, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Fiji, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Guatemala, Guinea-Bissau, the Holy See, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mexico, Moldova, Monaco, Morocco, Namibia, Netherlands, New Caledonia, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Panama, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Qatar, the Republic of Korea, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia, Turkey, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States of America, and Uruguay.
Managing different approaches to restrictions
Libraries in different parts of the world are facing very different situations, from broadly maintaining a full service to complete closure.
Drawing on experience around the world, libraries and librarians are finding themselves in one of a number of situations:
Business (more or less) as usual: in many countries, cases of the virus have been limited and governments have not taken any specific measures. Nonetheless, normal recommendations around good hygiene apply. In this situation, libraries are, for example:
- Ensuring access to soap and warm water
- Ensuring they have a supply of hand sanitiser
- Keeping surfaces clean, including toys and library computers
- Ensuring that staff and users are encouraged to take time to recover if they are feeling ill, rather than coming
- Providing pages with useful links to reliable information for users on their websites and promoting media literacy faced with potential misinformation online.
Some restrictions: there are more cases, and governments are beginning to act in order to limit larger events, as well as actively encouraging people to take extra measures to protect hygiene. In this situation, libraries are, for example:
- Reconsidering programming such as storytimes or workshops, especially for groups at risk such as older users. Additional efforts to ensure hygiene, including through disinfecting hard surfaces.
- Considering whether to close study spaces where people may spend a longer time in the company of others.
- Preparing for potential further restrictions, for example by ensuring that all staff have the skills and tools to work remotely (if this is possible) and that services, as far as possible, can still be provided digitally.
Minimal service: in many countries there are stricter measures still, with tougher limits on public gatherings, specific warnings for people at risk, and closures in the most affected regions. In these situations, libraries are, for example:
- Fully closing spaces and only offering the possibility to borrow or return books at a counter, or via a book drop. Some countries are experimenting with drive-through pick-up and return of books. Others are only allowing visitors who have pre-booked.
- Implementing plans to offer remote services for example eLending, eLearning, or support to remote teaching
- Finalising and testing measures for all staff to work remotely and allowing those who can to do so already.
Full closure: where measures are strictest, libraries have either been forced to close, or have chosen to do so following consideration of the risks to users and staff. In these situations, libraries are, for example:
- Ensuring that all staff working from home unless completely necessary. Where staff are coming into work, ensuring that they can do so while respecting rules around social distancing
- Librarians are being reassigned to other duties in other departments within their municipalities, for example using information management skills to support health and social services
- Providing ongoing communication with users about opportunities to use library resources or services
- Organising digital story-times
- Promoting use of digital libraries and other tools
- Offering an amnesty on borrowed physical books, and increasing the number of eBooks users can borrow
Staying safe at home and at work
In the light of the above, the WHO recommends in general that people should practice respiratory etiquette (for example, by coughing into a flexed elbow). People should also wash their hands or use an alcohol-based rub frequently, and not touch their faces.
People with mild symptoms who are otherwise healthy should self-isolate and contact their medical provider or a COVID-19 information line for advice on testing and referral. People with fever, cough or difficulty breathing should call their doctor and seek medical attention.
There are many more resources available on the WHO website. Furthermore, in precedence to the information given below, we encourage libraries to seek advice from your national public health agency, and of course to follow the guidance that already exists.
A key question for many in the library field has been around the risk of infection through contact with materials carrying coronavirus. Clearly our understanding of any aspect of how the virus is spread is still at an early stage, and so it is not possible to offer definitive advice, other than the universal recommendations on keeping hands clean and not touching faces.
There is some emerging research (in the New England Journal of Medicine, and the Journal of Hospital Infection) into the survival of the virus, both in the air and on different types of surface. It appears that it survives for longer on plastics and steel, and for less long on cardboard or copper, although these tests took place in laboratory conditions and infection risk does fall over time. Evidence on the most recent strain of coronavirus remains scarce, and it appears that normal cleaning processes make a big difference. At the same time, the general recommendation is to take care.
We are aware that some libraries have imposed a wait period before handling returned books, while others have made it clear that no-one is expected to return books until things return to normal. Outside of the library field – for example in postal services – there seems to be no advice against handling paper or cardboard. What does seem more likely is that other surfaces – such as door handles, keyboards, mice, toys or VR headsets – could carry the virus, and so should be regularly cleaned.
Where materials could be harmed by use of alcoholic gels or cleaning materials, basic hygiene measures, such as washing hands thoroughly with soap and water, avoiding touching the face, and staying away if displaying symptoms of COVID-19 appear advisable.
More and more countries are encouraging citizens to practice ‘social distancing’ – keeping a safe distance between individuals in order to reduce the risks of the virus passing from one person to another. The recommended distance varies from country to country but appears not to be below 1.5m (5ft).
To allow this, some libraries have stopped programmes which would see people spend longer periods together, in particular those which bring together people who are more vulnerable to the disease. Others have closed reading rooms or are only allowing people to collect books on appointment, either inside or outside of the building – for example setting up tables, or even with a drive-through service. Still others are planning how to provide book deliveries to vulnerable groups, while taking full account of the need to safeguard health.
Elsewhere, where it is felt that bringing people together brings too much of a risk, libraries have closed and gone fully online, or found other means of sharing physical copies of books as safely as possible. In the United States for example, we have seen libraries proactively ask authorities for closures where they feel that the risk to users and staff is too high.
Providing services remotely
Libraries around the world of all sorts have been working hard to provide access to collections and services remotely. All types of library have promoted their digital services – for example, the Bibliothèque nationale de France is organising virtual exhibitions, the National Library of Spain is promoting its digital content that can be used to support education.
Many public libraries are promoting online storytimes, where they can find a solution to copyright concerns. There have also been major efforts to boost access to eBooks, for example by increasing the number of eBooks that people can borrow at any given time (in Denmark), and by reassigning budgets to pay for electronic content.
Others are putting existing services online. The Library of Congress for example is organising a virtual transcribathon in order to engage people at distance, while the National Library of Norway us encouraging users to access its podcasts while in-person events are not possible. Vega la Camocha public library in Spain has set up a book-themed Gymkhana in order to keep children involved in reading and to help out parents with keeping them entertained. Danish libraries have set up an online Ask-a-Librarian reference service. Similarly in academic libraries, there are efforts to provide remote access, for example through online book requests at the East-West University in Bangladesh.
Some libraries are also looking to help out potential users who are not yet registered, and who cannot now sign up in person. The National Library of Estonia for example has established means for giving people access to books without contact, while the National Library of Morocco is also maintaining online inscriptions. The Cultuurconnect organisation in Belgium, which works with libraries, has also opened up its content to unregistered users, as has Booklist in the United States, which works to provide book reviews and other materials.
In many countries, libraries’ offer of free WiFi to users is a key part of their offer. In the United States, there has been a call on libraries to leave networks on so that users can access the internet from their cars if needs be.
Clearly the possibility to use resources online depends a lot on the terms under which they are accessed. Fortunately, a lot of publishers and vendors have taken helpful initiatives. Many have provided open access to materials related to COVID-19. Others have facilitated access by making it easier to log-in and access materials from outside of official networks.
There have also been welcome steps from major publishers such as Macmillan and Penguin Random House to make it easier for public libraries to buy and access eBooks for lending. Other information providers, such as the Internet Archive, have also made large volumes of materials available to support learners, researchers and others to access information in difficult times.
Publishers have also been ready to clarify that they are happy for libraries to offer storytimes from a copyright perspective in Australia, and libraries elsewhere are encouraging similar steps. In the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom, for example, there is now helpful guidance on what may or may not be possible under copyright law.
Beyond this, there are many great freely available resources available with educational materials – notably Open Education Resources Commons, which provides access to materials curated by a team of librarians. UNESCO’s Education Division is also providing links to valuable educational resources.
In particular, there are resources for teaching media and information literacy online – this is both a traditional area of strength for libraries, and a skills that is particularly necessary in the current circumstances. One example is the MOOC hosted on the Commonwealth of Learning platform.
Managing remote working
With libraries and library associations closing offices – where they have them – many in the library field are facing challenges around how to manage remote working effectively.
Clearly the best situation is where it has been possible to plan in advance, ensuring that all staff have the tools and training necessary to work effectively and safely from home. With many in the same situation, there are lots of materials available on the internet already, with a strong focus on regular contacts and maintaining good spirits and motivations.
Some associations are supporting efforts to share ideas on how to do this most effectively, for example in the United States, or in Latin America, alongside reflections about how best to serve users in general.
Actions by Associations, National Libraries and library partners
Associations and Library Authorities
Library associations themselves are doing great work to inform their members and support them in difficult times. Many have set up pages with lists of reliable sources and guidance at the national level – complementing advice at the global or regional levels – and encouraged communication and coordination between library directors in order to share ideas and practice. Others are providing useful support for planning, both for the management of staff and buildings, and for the development of online services, through useful checklists and courses – see the list below.
Others are working to improve conditions – for example, the Australian Library and Information Association has negotiated an agreement with publishers to ensure that public libraries can take story-times online without worrying about infringing copyright, while the American Library Association has already posted about how to manage copyright issues. The Australian Copyright Alliance has also prepared guidance on coping with copyright in a crisis.
The American Library Association has a Pandemic Preparedness Guide, which contains a range of tools and resources, including around how to prepare for potential closures.
Library authorities are playing their part also. In Denmark, for example, the number of eBooks any user can borrow has been increased.
Library associations themselves are working to boost free access to learning and development, with the Chinese Library Society working with the National Library to provide online learning, while the Australian Library and Information Association has made its Professional Development Postings freely available for the duration of the crisis.
See in particular the following association pages:
Australia: Australian Libraries Responding to COVID-19
Belgium: Libraries and Archives Closed for Visitors (in Dutch)
Colombia: the Association of Colombian Librarians prepared a webinar (in Spanish, working with the IFLA LAC Section) on ideas on how librarians can respond
France: Library Services and Public Health (in French)
Italy: Where to Find Information (in Italian)
New Zealand: COVID-19 Coronavirus and the New Zealand LIS Sector
United Kingdom: CILIP Coronavirus Information Service
Other associations and organisations are active. CLIR has organised resources on COVID-19 on a special page, while the Association of Research Libraries has analysis of what academic and research libraries in the US and Canada are doing. The African Library and Information Association (AfLIA) is collecting examples of what libraries are doing in Africa, as is Infotecarios in Latin America (working with the Colombian Librarians’ Association (ASCOLBI) and LIBER in academic libraries in Europe.
The Association of University Library Directors in France has worked with the national consortium Couperin to call on publishers to facilitate access to works, as has the International Coalition of Library Consortia. Meanwhile, the Association for the Promotion of School Documentary Services in Quebec has provided members with tools they can use to ensure that libraries are integrated in plans to provide remote learning.
National libraries can also play an important role in providing access to content. In China, for example, the national digital library has been reinforced in order to deal with the increase in demand and has waived fines for borrowed materials which cannot be returned. In Korea, too, the national digital library has seen a major increase in use.
Others are putting activities online. The Library of Congress for example is organising a virtual transcribathon in order to engage people at distance, while the Bibliothèque nationale de France is organising virtual exhibitions. The National Library of Estonia has established means for giving people access to books without contact, while the National Library of Spain is promoting its digital content that can be used to support education. The National Library of Norway us encouraging users to access its podcasts while in-person events are not possible.
The National Library of Luxembourg, is making it possible to obtain a library card for three months by email, without the usual ID checks, in order to facilitate access, while the National Library of Morocco is maintaining both online inscriptions alongside ISBN and legal deposit services.
Others are working to support national library fields in general, with the National Library of Sri Lanka for example preparing and sharing guidance with libraries across the country
There have been very welcome moves by publishers, vendors and others working with libraries to facilitate access to content even when library buildings are forced to close. As set out in the statement by the IFLA President and Secretary-General, it is to be hoped that such steps are generalised as we all look to work together to allow learning, research and access to culture to continue.
Project MUSE has announced that materials from 9 university presses will be freely available for a number of months. VitalSource has worked with its publisher partners to broaden access to materials using only an email address to log-in.
In the United States, Macmillan has suspended limits recently imposed on library access to new eBook publications. Penguin Random House is offering specific discounts for public and school libraries. Also in the US, Booklist – a collection of book reviews and other resources which help in teaching and other engagement around books – has also been made available to all.
IFLA’s acknowledges its own publishing partner – SAGE – which has announced interventions including removing the subscription gateway to a number of articles and created and committed to the Wellcome coordinated statement on COVID-19-related materials, and is promoting its free online course on ‘How to Get Published’. Like others (for example, Springer Nature and MIT Press), it is also concentrating and sharing resources on COVID-19 and managing pandemics through a microsite.
Communicating with users in different languages
IFLA’s Library Services to Multicultural Populations Section is working with the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) to develop translated signage and text to support libraries communicating with their linguistically diverse communities, particularly in relation to library closures and accessing online information. These resources are available in MS Word format. Libraries are welcome to adapt and use this content as best meets their needs to communicate with their community. Translations will be made available in more languages as they are developed.
IFLA is aware that the pandemic has brought up a number of wider issues which we are following closely. In addition to copyright – mentioned above – there are concerns around the impacts of the crisis on the broader culture, education and research sectors, privacy, and ensuring democratic norms are protected. We continue to monitor these issues closely and will share information and views as appropriate.
Last update: 27 March 2020