The extraordinary events of the past few months are unprecedented in our lifetimes, but the response to the Covid-19 pandemic contains echoes of the 1918–19 influenza outbreak. The Library is one of many institutions following the lead of our forebears.
When the Library announced its closure on Sunday 22 March 2020, it felt as though we were in uncharted waters: for the first time in memory the Library was closing its doors to the public and staff indefinitely. We would all be ‘self-isolating’, a term that had suddenly entered our vocabulary.
In the week before the Library closed, staff had begun to prepare for the inevitable shift to working from home by practising virtual meetings and saving files to the ‘cloud’. Reading room staff were working out how to offer services to readers remotely, and our cataloguing teams were preparing to access Library systems from home. Staff who acquire new material for the collection were monitoring social media and collecting posts with hashtags such as #stayhomeaustralia, #lockdownaustralia and #covid19australia, and archiving emails from businesses and organisations affected by the pandemic.
As ‘unprecedented’ as it all seems, this isn’t the first time the Library has closed for an extended period. For 10 weeks during the last great pandemic — the 1918–19 influenza, known as the Spanish flu — the doors remained shut. Described as ‘pneumonic influenza’, its symptoms included high temperature, aching joints, runny nose, cough and general fatigue, often leading to respiratory failure. It was highly infectious and frequently lethal.