Photo courtesy Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

“This past week, many public libraries found themselves grappling with a real and unexpected threat. The 2019 Novel Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, is causing many libraries to consider how they can best share information about the disease and protect their patrons.

Public library staff and patrons may be particularly vulnerable. The library is one of the last places in the world where people of all ages, economic backgrounds, and social standings are welcome to gather without judgment or prejudice. We hold public programs, share equipment, and conduct business face-to-face. We have lots of surfaces touched by thousands of hands. We help the elderly, those experiencing homelessness, and the young.

Libraries are also a vital source of truthful information about many subjects, including the spread of COVID-19. It’s no surprise that there are already lots of rumors and false safety tips circulating on the internet. Libraries must help make sure the public has accurate information about how to protect themselves.

I want to share some resources to help your library as you grapple with COVID-19. These are gathered from official sources and from librarians working in libraries across the U.S.

This is also a good time for library marketers to consider how they respond in a crisis and to update their crisis communication plans. Scroll down for more help with that.

Coronavirus Resources for Libraries

Official CDC site for Coronavirus. Bookmark this page so you can provide information to the public. Library social media managers should post facts about the illness taken from the CDC site. A once-a-day Coronavirus fact check post is a good way to counteract the effects of false internet rumors. It will establish your library as a trusted source for the truth about the illness.

CDC Communications Resources for Coronavirus. This section of the CDC site includes videos and print materials to share with your patrons. In addition, the section for public health communicators should be shared with your senior staff.

CDC provided Coronavirus graphic

EveryLibrary guide. EveryLibrary has created an extensive resource page for libraries. They’re also holding a free webinar on Thursday, March 26, on pandemic preparations for libraries. You don’t have to register but you do have to be a member of Library 2.0, which is free.

Comic for kids from NPR. Library social media managers are passing around this piece by NPR education reporter Cory Turner. He asked some experts what kids might want to know about the Coronavirus. You can print and fold the comic, which also comes in Chinese.

BrainPOP video for kids. You can share this video with teachers and caregivers or play it at story times or children’s events to help educate kids and alleviate their fears. The site also has lots of other resources for kids including related reading, games, and lesson plans.

Blog post from North Central Regional Library, Washington. This is a great example of how to communicate the facts about the illness to a broad audience. This library used state and federal authorities to answer key questions. They also addressed concerns about visiting their public library. If you have a blog, I recommend a similar post to help spread facts and assuage fears.

Blog post from Bucks County Free Library, Pennsylvania. Their post includes a special section of information for kids that would be particularly helpful for caregivers and teachers.

Oregon City, Oregon resource guide. This version includes documents that anyone can print or download and share.

Clemson Libraries Guide. The Clemson library included a Google news feed with stories from trusted stories, which is a great idea.

UC San Diego Guide. The University of California San Diego post includes a graphic from John Hopkins that updates the number of cases around the world, making it easy for people to get updated information about the spread of Coronavirus.

Libraries 2020 article. If your library doesn’t have resources for a blog or a page on your website, you can share this fantastic article from Libraries 2020 to help customers recognize rumors and false information about Coronavirus.

Kimberly Barker, Librarian for Digital Life at Claude Moore Health Sciences Library – University of Virginia, created this printable PDF for libraries to post. She gave me permission to share it with you.

Preparing for a Crisis

At some point your library will face a crisis. It might be a transmittable disease, like COVID-19. It might be a non-lethal but worrisome issue–black mold found in study rooms. It might be a power outage that lasts several days and closes several branches (that happened to my former library!) Perhaps it will be more severe–a fire that destroys a branch, a violent argument between customers, or an administrator caught doing something illegal.

As upsetting as it is to contemplate, it will happen–this I can promise you. Your response to crisis in your role as the library spokesperson can make or break an organization. In my earlier life as a journalist, I watched it happen dozens of times. It’s heartbreaking to watch an organization fall apart during a crisis.

On the flip side, I’ve witnessed communicators who keep their organization afloat with amazing and inspiring work during scary and emotionally trying times.

The best thing you can do right now is to prepare. Here’s how.

Have a frank conversation with administration about disaster preparedness. They might feel uncomfortable having this conversation but make it clear that it’s necessary so that you can perform your job in the best way possible. Make decisions about how you’ll handle a crisis while you are calm and rational, because rationality and calm will fly out the window the minute a serious crisis threatens your library.

Create a system-wide disaster communications plan. If your library doesn’t have one in place yet, now is the time to decide how a crisis will be handled.  Your library should assign employees to serve on a crisis communications team. This team will be responsible for gathering and disseminating information to internal and external audiences, including staff and the media.

Decide who will be authorized to speak to the media on behalf of the library. Ideally, you’ll have one main spokesperson and a backup. Try to limit it to two people, or you’ll risk losing control of your message. The spokespeople need to be comfortable in front of a TV camera, credible, knowledgeable about the library, articulate, calm, and able to work with other agencies to coordinate responses.

When it happens, be sure to communicate with your staff first, then the media. But do so quickly. Don’t wait until you know all the facts about your situation. By then, rumors will spread through social media by your customers and your co-workers and you’ll lose control of your narrative. If you don’t talk first and fast, reporters will start looking for workers and customers to interview.

Don’t be afraid to say “we don’t know yet” and refer questions to the investigating authorities. This is particularly true in criminal investigations. Send reporters to the investigating agency for answers.

Prepare your staff for ambush interviews.  Warn your staff that they will likely be approached by a reporter wanting information. Train them to funnel all such requests through your designated spokesperson.

Always having someone watching social media.  Designate one person to watch for any mention of your organization on social media channels. Have clear guidelines in place for how this person can respond to those mentions and comments.”