Gathering information, educating patrons, hunting down hard-to-find items—it’s all part of the everyday work of librarians. That’s why some cities are turning to them to serve on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic as so-called contact tracers. The work entails searching for individuals believed to have been exposed to someone infected with COVID-19, warning them that they might have contracted the virus, and encouraging them to self-quarantine.
As city employees are often unable to report to work because of building closures and furloughs, librarians are being reassigned not only to work as contact tracers but also making masks and organizing at food banks.
“I think it’s a great fit,” says Lisa Fagundes, adult services librarian at San Francisco Public Library’s (SFPL) Main Library, who first discovered the contact tracer program through a local news story.
About 40 to 50 librarians from SFPL are now working as contact tracers, she says. Their skill set dovetails with the work because librarians are already trained on the ethics of maintaining patron privacy, and they also make a practice of asking open-ended questions to help identify patrons’ needs, Fagundes says. “That’s useful for contact tracing,” she says.
While SFPL librarians have been working as contact tracers for about a month now, a similar program in Denver is set to launch within about a week. Erin Wilkins, a librarian at the Ross-University Hills branch of Denver Public Library, is working as a liaison with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment to coordinate newly assigned librarian contact tracers. “People want to help out the community and give back,” she says. “Our job is to serve the city and its residents, and this is a way to do that.”
Wilkins also says the work is a good match for librarians because “it utilizes skills we already have, like collecting and communicating information to the public and helping others. It requires empathy, as it is talking to people about the fact they might have come into contact with the virus,” she says.
Exhibiting empathy as a contact tracer is easier said than done, though, as contacts don’t always respond well, according to Fagundes. While gratifying, she says, the work can also be heartbreaking. Fagundes says she recently contacted an older couple who regularly deliver food and supplies to their blind neighbor.
“He got COVID-19, and they were exposed,” Fagundes says, recalling a long phone conversation with the woman, who feared she might have contracted the virus. “She was also worried about her neighbor and how he was going to eat,” she says. “She was nice and grateful we were calling.”
While the work of tracking individuals exposed to COVID-19 is coordinated through public health departments and does not rely on library patron information, the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF) has released a resource guide for protecting patron privacy during the pandemic. Deborah Caldwell-Stone, OIF director, says that most states have laws precluding the release of personal information without a court order. The OIF guide notes: “In all cases, access to, and delivery of, library resources and services should not be conditioned on the user’s consent to the collection and use of their information for contact tracing or other purposes unrelated to library service.”
It’s important to remain mindful of privacy concerns at a time when many in the public are on edge, adds Fagundes. She says one of her coworkers was yelled at by contacts on their first two calls. “I try to be thankful for them even taking the call,” she says.
In a time when many are at home looking for work and simply waiting for the pandemic to end, Fagundes says she finds contact tracing stimulating and that she feels lucky to be learning new skills during the crisis.
“Getting to be part of [the contact tracing team] on the lines of trying to stop a contagion is fulfilling, so I really enjoy that part of it,” she says.