Monday 20 September 2021

A roadmap for libraries?

Last week, the NSW government announced its upcoming 'freedoms for fully vaccinated people', with Victoria announcing their 'roadmap out of lockdown' over the weekend. Both of them have incentivised vaccination by eventually easing restrictions for people who have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and can verify this through a 'vaccination passport'.

So, what does this mean for libraries? How do these principles sit with values of freedom of access to information and privacy? Can libraries open up and still keep people safe? Let's take a look.

Re-opening libraries

In NSW and Victoria, many library buildings are closed, and offering contactless 'click and collect' services. Whilst neither of these states specifically mention libraries, NSW's roadmap mentions that once the state reaches 70% double-vaccinated (approximately 5 October), "indoor entertainment and information facilities including cinemas, theatres, music halls, museums and galleries can reopen with 1 person per 4sqm or 75% fixed seated capacity", but these will only be open to those who are fully vaccinated or have a medical exemption. (On a side note, I was curious to see the mention of music halls - perhaps they did some research on the reopening of cultural venues coming out of the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1920.)

On the other hand, Victoria has indicated that its community facilities in metropolitan areas should stick to click and collect until 80% are fully vaccinated (approx 5 November), at which point in time they can have vaccinated people inside the library (1 person per 4 sqm, max 150). Regional Victorian community facilities are already allowed up to 20 people indoors per facility, increasing to 1 vaccinated person per 4 sqm with a max of 30 ppl on 26 October, then 150 people on 5 November.

Of course, the big condition of re-opening libraries in these cases, is that people must be fully vaccinated to use these facilities, and wear a mask indoors. Given the trouble that libraries have already encountered in the past managing those who do not want to wear masks, asking visitors for evidence of vaccination is going to be another requirement that will not be fun for frontline staff to enforce.

Here in the ACT, libraries are closed, and do not offer click and collect. The ACT Chief Minister has already indicated that they will not be implementing a 'vaccine passport' system. What this means for libraries safely reopening remains to be seen.

Finally, there are the libraries in all of the other states. At the moment, it's business as usual with physical services on offer, but it will be interesting to watch is how libraries will need to respond once the state borders re-open, and they move from living in a 'Zero COVID' environment to a 'living with the virus' environment. It won't be an easy adjustment, but that will become the reality in the new year, and libraries in these states may need to implement restrictions to reduce the risk of the spread.

Quarantining books

This has always been one of those contentious issues, ever changing. We did a lot of book quarantining last year with the first lockdowns. Then it pretty much stopped once we returned to COVID zero and now we focus more on using gloves and sanitiser on hands. However, once books come back into circulation, in a 'living with the virus' environment, there will need to be a new benchmark for managing the risk of infection through book surfaces - especially if libraries move into a hybrid system of in-person browsing and borrowing (for those fully vaccinated) and click and collect (for those not fully vaccinated).

Vaccinating library staff

This has not been mentioned in either of the roadmaps, but in the US we are already seeing instances of organisations mandating vaccination of all employees. Whilst I would hope that all librarians would have the skills to manage and identify misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines, and get the jab themselves, there are instances in the US where a large proportion of staff are refusing to get vaccinated - and indeed, we already see it happening amongst health care workers in Australia. Library organisations owe it to their workers to ensure that they have a safe workplace to go to - and that includes keeping them safe from other workers who choose to not get vaccinated. 


This is a big one. Both the NSW and Victorian roadmaps hinge on the principle of controlling the movement and activities of those who are not vaccinated - which means constantly asking people for personal information, which might include:

  • Full name
  • Age
  • Vaccination status
  • Medical reason for not being vaccinated
There were plenty of concerns expressed around libraries gathering personal information for contact tracing purposes last year. What is proposed will be next level - it will be intrusive, confronting, and sends the message that only certain people are welcome to enter the library. A vaccination passport is effectively an ID card that everybody will be expected to carry with them and produce when requested. And whilst it may be absolutely necessary for keeping staff and other library users safer, it's not going to be sending a positive message to the community.

Access to information and services

There are already many who are opposing the establishment of a 'vaccination passport' system, saying that it will create a kind of apartheid society - and they're not entirely wrong. Whilst there are many who choose not to get vaccinated as a result of misinformation, there are also those who have medical reasons for not being vaccinated. There are fundamental principles of freedom of access to library resources that should be considered. Of course, keep your staff safe, but provide equal services to all - don't promote library access as a 'special reward' or 'freedom' to those who are fully vaccinated. A freedom for a select group of people is a restriction for everybody else. Find ways to equitably reach out and connect to all in your community - not just those who are allowed to walk in the front door.

Keeping library workers safe

I've already mentioned staff vaccination, which is an essential part of worker safety, but there's also the occupational hazards of delivering frontline services. Last year, when libraries reopened but required users to maintain social distancing and wearing masks, it was those workers on the frontline who were on the receiving end of customer abuse. Adding the above privacy concerns to the mix raises the risk to our workers, who may be expected to further police the rules of entry, and ask each and every person coming to the library to provide their evidence of vaccination. Frontline staff will be putting their physical and emotional wellbeing on the line every time they do this.

So, where to from here? My personal opinion is that libraries should only provide contactless services to their entire community until it is safe for them to reopen in-person services to their entire community. Unfortunately, it's not going to be possible to provide physical services safely for the near future - especially once we come out of lockdown, the borders reopen, and we have to 'live with the virus' at the expense of those who are not vaccinated (whether that be of their choosing or not).

The unfortunate reality, though, is that there is a stronger appetite to completely reopen than there is to stay closed. We know that there is value in libraries marketing themselves as 'essential' rather than 'nice to have' - especially when it comes to funding and budgets - and when library buildings are closed, many staff are stood down without pay. On the flipside, we currently see university libraries in Melbourne that have stayed open through lockdown, with casual frontline staff put in the unenviable choice of either taking paid shifts and risking their wellbeing, or not getting paid. The risk is that this will become the norm, where those who can work from home will continue to do so, whilst frontline staff are sent back to the frontline.

Finally, the ALIA Board have just released a statement, highlighting the importance of keeping staff safe, countering misinformation around vaccines, and ensuring that library services are open to all.

How we actually do that will be the big challenge, moving into 2022.


  1. Andrew, this is a thoughtful post, and I agree with a great deal of what you write. Managing, or avoiding, the potential conflict should libraries move to a vaccine passport arrangement, will be a critical area. Clear directions across the community, from the PM down really, would help to set expectations. I don't agree with the use of the word apartheid in this context. It's unnecessarily emotive and inaccurate. People who choose not to be vaccinated in a pandemic need to understand vaccination is not an 'add on', a nice thing to have or not. Vaccination is simply the only way to reduce the risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death. A public health crisis requires a public response and that means thinking beyond oneself as an isolated individual. There may occasionally be a legitimate health reason, but that can be managed with documentation. I don't work in a library – I work in a bookshop – and I sincerely hope that all my colleagues and customers are vaccinated. We currently require people to check in on the QR code (when we are actually open), and if the QR code was matched with a vaccine record, I would be very happy with that in place. Australia's vaccination rates are for the most part looking good (though WA and QLD could get a move on). If, as you emphasise, access to vaccination is done equitably, we should be in a good position to return to something like life as we knew it

    1. Hi Mike - thanks for your comments (and hello!),

      I do feel really conflicted on the whole 'we must not create a system that discriminates' argument that is being increasingly rolled out in the last few days.

      I absolutely agree with you that vaccination is essential, and the only way forward. I also feel that individual freedoms should stop when they threaten to harm others, and this is certainly the case here. However, part of the problem is that people need to choose to be vaccinated, and as a society, we simply have not sufficiently informed people through our public health messaging. It's created a divisive situation.

      It is concerning, when right wing extremists and conspiracy theorists can pose a more compelling argument to some than public health officials. I fear that we have underestimated the impact of disinformation over the past year, and here we are now. Maybe I'm being naive, but in a way, it's these people who have been most vulnerable to disinformation who are in most need of engagement with services like libraries - and they are the ones who will have access to information restricted.

      But more importantly, I have concerns for staff. For my entire career, I've been guided by the principles that libraries should be open to all, and constantly worked on trying to remove those barriers to access. But we have seen over the past days the impact and damage that a vocal minority can make, and it's really quite horrific what's happening in the US at the moment. I don't want colleagues to need to confront this kind of behaviour in their workplaces on a daily basis - and I certainly don't want to subject workers to the risk of contracting the disease from those who are unvaccinated.

      So, we are going to become a community further divided through disinformation - and that doesn't sit comfortably with me. I don't think there's a good solution that ticks all of the boxes, but first and foremost, we need to do what we can to keep our workers safe from all of the potential occupational hazards that will arise out of this.