On March 20, American Libraries Live hosted the webinar “Libraries and COVID-19: Managing Strategies and Stress.” Moderator Dan Freeman, director of ALA Publishing eLearning Solutions, led a discussion with librarians and health professionals on the front lines of the crisis about the library response to the pandemic and methods to reduce stress for both library staffers and patrons.
Freeman was joined by Maria Stella Rasetti, director of San Giorgio Library of Pistoia in Tuscany, Italy; Lisa Rosenblum, executive director of King County (Wash.) Library System; Loren Mc Clain, certified instructor for the National Council for Behavioral Health and Mental Health First Aid USA and senior academic advisor for the School of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics at American Public University System; and Richard Moniz, director of library services at Horry-Georgetown Technical College in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Maria, what role has your library been playing in the community? What services are you providing since your physical facilities were shut down?
Rasetti: From the beginning, we were conscious that our job was to help users and citizens choose reliable sources of information to counter the fake news on TV and social media. Another important thing we are doing is spreading news about Digital Solidarity, a national project where several entertainment companies are offering free online access to TV programs and movies, as well as programs for students, kids, and parents. We are also creating our own resources and opportunities. We called on writers and artists to record short videos and presentations about their books, so our users can keep in touch with the library. For kids, our librarians read aloud short stories and record them—all for our YouTube channel.
As far as the way the library responded, what is one thing you are most proud of? And what would you have done differently?
Rasetti: We have been successful at offering information on free online opportunities for people and families to enjoy together at home. We could have been better about pushing our digital lending service. And we could have done better with our Friends of the Library. We have an association of more than 500 people who have suspended their precious services of bringing books to seniors living at home and their service of reading aloud to people who cannot read on their own. We still ask our volunteers to call those people and spend half an hour with them, reading a story or reading a chapter of a book together. We are working hard, but we are only at the beginning.
How has your library responded, Lisa?
Rosenblum: On February 29, when the first death occurred [in King County], we pulled out our business continuity plan—that’s basically disaster planning in case of business interruption. I also got together our emergency response team; the leadership team started getting together every other day, and eventually daily, sometimes twice a day. We started letting the public know that we were going to do extra cleaning, which we did. We also posted in the library coronavirus fact sheets, updating them in different languages. We had a website right away, informing the public about what we were doing and what was going on in our community, so that they would have information they could rely on.
As days went by, the real issue was that we couldn’t just close. We’re public libraries; the last thing we ever want to do in a crisis is close. But [COVID-19] is a different animal. As much as we want to be open, this is a community health crisis and being open just didn’t work. As the virus started to rage through our county, we closed programs that attracted more than 50 people, as the governor told us to do. Then we closed all events that would reach a crowd of more than 10 people. That was basically all the programs in our library, but we remained open.
The tipping point was when the governor ordered all schools closed on March 14; then we closed our libraries. Initially, we were going to close and staff were going to report to work, but considering the governor and the county executive’s plea for people to remain in their homes, I didn’t think it prudent to make people come to work. Our staff are working at home.
How far out is your library planning right now? Are you just looking at the next several months? Are you going beyond that?
Rosenblum: We are always trying to anticipate the next step. When we initially started doing more cleaning, we said, “Okay, what if it’s not working? What do we do next?” We’re strongly discouraging returns of materials right now. We’ve stopped ordering physical books. Since we’re not moving books around our system, there’s no reason to order them, so we’ve moved a large amount of money—$350,000—to purchasing digital books. We’re doing online prerecorded storytimes, and we’re increasing Tutor.com capacity to serve students online, presuming they have online access. We’re also answering reference questions by mail, and we will soon have chat and phone capabilities.
We promoted our e-cards and saw a 389% increase in requests for them on March 18, 2020, compared to [the same date in] 2019. That’s been a huge asset for us, that we already had e-cards in place. Our Wi-Fi remains on for people who are driving to our parking lots for access, and our librarians are preparing blogs and FAQs. And we’re looking into online programming like book talks and book clubs. We suspended all active holds as well. We don’t want anyone trying to access our library buildings right now. The governor has been clear about people staying at home, so we’re trying to not create an attractive nuisance by having patrons come see us at this point. That’s liable to change, so that’s where we are right now.
Loren, as someone who is involved with community health, what’s your perspective on the current situation and how it is affecting people?
Mc Clain: Responding to COVID-19 has taken an emotional toll on people, particularly if they witness suffering or experience personal harm to their well-being. People are moving from working in offices to telecommuting—that’s a disruption to life as they know it. If exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19, they may be separated from family and faced with a life-or-death situation.
People experience secondary traumatic stress reactions. For example, if a coworker or neighbor has a confirmed case of COVID-19, you can see how their situation is affecting them. The secondhand experience can be a state of traumatic stress. Secondary traumatic stress is just as valid as a firsthand experience, just as exposure to someone with COVID-19 is just as scary as confirming you have the virus yourself.
Everyone reacts differently to a stressful situation. What you find panic- or stress-inducing might be trivial to another person. Social distancing has changed life as we know it, as well. It’s natural and understandable that it will take a toll on mental health. It’s important to understand that your feelings are valid no matter what you feel. We do have some steadfast coping strategies to mitigate the negative response that you may have to isolation.
Many physical libraries have closed, but given that physical proximity is limited right now, even when libraries reopen, what strategies and tools might be available as virtual resources?
Mc Clain: Snapchat has announced the “Here for You” project to provide support for its users, which may be useful for libraries that use the app to engage certain demographics. “Here for You” sends users things for emotional and mental health crises, leading to relevant resources that can help people cope. Snapchat has also partnered with Active Minds, Because of You, Crisis Text Line, Seize the Awkward, YoungMinds, the Samaritans, and the Diana Award to provide content designed to address a variety of mental health concerns.
Build a support system and offer information. If you can, post to Facebook, Instagram, and your library’s website, and send out email blasts to let your community know about online resources offered by the library or outside institutions. Audible, Libby, OverDrive, Hoopla, and ABCmouse are providing free online tools for kids; Varsity Tutors is connecting students with tools online and on demand.
Another resource I advocate for is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, because at some point, someone may go through a mental health crisis, and they may not know of any other options.
Richard, you’re a librarian, but you’ve also written and taught extensively on mindfulness and organizational dysfunction. What is mindfulness, and how does it apply as a stress reduction tool?
Moniz: The Mindful Librarian: Connecting the Practice of Mindfulness to Librarianship (Chandos Publishing, 2015) was the first book that my colleagues and I wrote about the subject. But one of the definitions I like is from the book Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness, by Susan L. Smalley and Diana Winston (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 2010): “Mindfulness is the art of observing your physical, emotional, and mental experiences with deliberate and open curious attention.” That covers mindfulness in a nutshell, but really it boils down to just being present in the moment and not being fixated on the past and what could have been done differently. The most common practices associated with mindfulness are breathing meditations, loving-kindness meditation, walking meditation, mindful eating, and yoga in its various forms. Tai chi is another thing that people do related to mindfulness.
For those going to work onsite at a library, how can they use mindfulness both for their own advantage and for patrons?
Moniz: Mindfulness emphasizes being present, and you have to be especially present when you’re working with people now—being sure to not touch your face, for example. It may seem awkward, but it is necessary. I was in a meeting yesterday, and I noticed everyone was touching their faces. It’s not going to be easy; you’re going to have to stay very much in the present to be aware and safe. It is all experimental at this point. Try to be flexible and see what works.