Libraries and Pandemics: Past and Present

Julia Skinner:

In 1918, World War I was coming to a close, and widespread changes were afoot. It was in some ways a moment similar to today: rapid technological development brought sweeping changes to workplaces and homes. Fights for labor and voting rights were underway. Then, in the spring, a pandemic began to sweep the globe, killing millions. Libraries across the U.S. helped people stay informed, entertained, and cared for as they disseminated information and resources, shifted their services, and re-imagined how they brought collections to the communities they served.

Public libraries in the United States started to proliferate in the late 1800s and early 1900s, often founded by women’s clubs and other social groups seeking to benefit their communities. Their early focus was on classic literature, which was thought to improve and transform the reader. However, thanks in part to librarianship during the pandemic , a shift occurred after World War I towards “useful information”, and with that shift came a focus on readers’ needs and interests.