Kathryn Shaw, Manager of Collection Development Programs
The health of our civilization, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries. ~ Carl Sagan
In January 2020, less than 2 months before Covid hit, Gallup released poll results showing that, in the US, library visits outpaced trip to the movies in 2019.
Those of us who work, or have worked, in libraries aren’t surprised by this news. We know how busy our libraries are and how much our patrons enjoy and depend on our resources, programs, and services (not only do our attendance stats tell us this, but so do our patrons!). We know our libraries are community hubs connecting people socially, culturally, and professionally.
Research backs this up. In a May 2019 report, Daniel Cox and Ryan Streeter, both of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, DC-based public policy think tank, cite findings of their Survey on Community and Society (SCS). Their data suggests that living near community-oriented public and commercial spaces, like libraries, brings a host of social benefits, such as increased trust, decreased loneliness, feelings of safety, and a stronger sense of belonging to one’s community.
Eric Klinenberg believes this wholeheartedly. He’s a professor of sociology and the Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. He’s also the author of a number of books, including 2019’s Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life and a 2018 New York Times opinion piece in which he credits public libraries, among other public spaces, with an integral role in the future health of democratic societies. In fact, he considers public libraries the heart of the social infrastructure he says is essential to our individual and collective social health.
While advocating for public frameworks that help increase civic engagement and community cohesion, these researchers and many others build on the case Robert Putnam makes for social capital in his pioneering 2001 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.
So, what happens when access to that social capital suddenly diminishes or disappears? What happens when libraries and other public institutions must close their spaces indefinitely?
My colleague, Beth Reinker, talks in her post last month about the boom in home baking occurring as a result of Covid lockdown and extended stay-at-home orders. The baking bonanza is real (how many of us tried desperately to score flour at the grocery store in April?). I’ve read accounts of it not just in the US, but in countries like Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Japan, as well. Our current need for diversion and comfort extends well beyond the kitchen, though, as far as responsible social distancing will allow: to help cope with the boredom, isolation, and stress of rarely leaving home for months, people have taken up new pastimes or have resumed long-neglected ones.
We’ve re-found joy in painting or family board game night. We’re inspired to learn to play piano, or to relearn -- like my 21-year-old son, disenchanted by his college classes having moved almost entirely online – the violin. We’re knitting and crocheting, building furniture, or brewing beer. There even has been a surge in people enjoying bird-watching.
One Maine resident and devoted Bangor Public Library patron writes a lovely description of their new backyard birding practice – an unexpected benefit of the unfortunate and sudden closing of their local branch library in March. The essay is but one of thousands of stories people have submitted to libraries around the country, in which they talk about how coronavirus has affected them, personally and professionally, negatively and sometimes positively. This past spring, librarians and archivists began collecting newspaper stories, essays, photos, artwork, and other artifacts, many of which members of their communities contribute, to document individual and collective experiences of the pandemic. Some of these archives are already viewable for their communities to enjoy. And they all will exist for future researchers.
Bangor Public Library, for example, sent out paper forms on which people could write their personal Covid stories. Patrons also submitted narratives directly on the library’s website. At the same time, it launched a Pandemic Postcard Project, which asked people to send a 4×6-inch postcard decorated with an image inspired by one of five prompts, such as, “create an image in the day in your life of quarantine.”
State and academic libraries, like California State Library and Louisiana State University Libraries are overseeing similar projects. Why do libraries encourage people to tell their stories? Why curate those stories? Because, though libraries are much more than book repositories, they protect their traditional role as providers of information and stewards of historical records. And because Covid-19 stories are invaluable primary sources. “We have never tried to collect history as it’s happening,” said Caren Zatyk, head of Smithtown Library’s Long Island Room, where the collection of maps and documents extends back to the 17th century.” "But we realized this is an historic and significant event…we want to show future generations what things were like.”
Another reason to write, record, listen to, and relay personal accounts of Covid-19 is simply for the many psychological benefits of narrative, both for the teller and for the receiver. In a blog post in April, I mention that storytelling has been a powerful tool humans have used for thousands of years to persuade, inspire, teach, and reassure. In fact, research shows again and again that humans are hard wired for narrative. As social beings, we think in stories, we’re better able to remember in stories, and we make sense of the world around us through stories. A good story engages our senses, moves us morally, connects us to others. Thus, narrative provides context, meaning, and an emotional element that together evoke a strong neurological response.
We’d love to hear your Covid stories! Tag us and share them on social media using #thelibrarylife.
Coming in January: The Power of Storytelling, Part 3/3: Libraries’ Stories