Public Health and the Reference Desk

Statistically speaking, you are extremely unlikely to catch Ebola while working a reference shift. You’ve probably seen some version of a chart of things more likely to kill you than Ebola, which has become somewhat of an internet meme. These charts tend to include lots of potentially lethal things that people encounter regularly, such as bees or lightning. (As someone with an irrational fear of bees and an unduly-large-but-entirely-rational fear of lightning, I’m not sure I’m comforted.) In point of fact, you are much more likely to be killed crossing a street on your way to your reference shift than you are by catching Ebola from a library patron. (This is particularly true if you work in a library on a university campus bordered by a major road known by a nickname such as “the strip” or “the drag.”)

Just because you won’t catch Ebola at the reference desk, do not think you are safe from germs while fulfilling your library duties. Many, many different pathogens are out there, virtually all of them more contagious than Ebola. For example, the flu strikes an extensive blow every year in an annual outbreak known as “flu season.” The CDC provides a handy chart to educate the public as to when the flu is likely to hit its peak. Since reference librarians typically interact with members of the public in relatively close proximity, they are likely to be exposed to influenza germs each year. Furthermore, those of us who provide reference at law schools often interact with an especially sensitive population, namely overly stressed, sleep-deprived law students. Given their state, these students may be even more likely than the general public to be harboring the flu.

Of course, the germ exchange could work the other way as well. If a reference librarian reports to work contagious (we are typically dedicated), that single librarian may accidentally infect multiple library users in a single day. For instance, I have a toddler in daycare. Since he has started daycare, I have on several occasions come to work only to discover during the course of the day that I have come down with: hand, foot, and mouth disease; viral gastroenteritis (twice); pink eye (thrice); or a severe head cold (more times than I can count). On these days, I was more likely to be an accidental disease vector than an unwitting victim.

Luckily, conscientious librarians can take several steps to minimize the chances of an unintended exchange of microbes during reference interactions. First, keep hand sanitizer at the reference desk and wash your hands frequently. (Incidentally, according to the CDC, vigilant hand washing also works against Ebola.) Second, sanitize surfaces regularly; keyboards do not explode when sprayed with Lysol. Third, maintain your recommended vaccinations (including yearly flu shots) to contribute to herd immunity. Fourth, if you know you are contagious, impose a self-quarantine by calling in sick. While you may think you’re annoying your coworkers by forcing them to having them cover for you, trust me, they’ll be much more annoyed if you infect them with contagion. Finally, use your reference librarian know-how to research other recommendations and likewise refer patrons to credible sites such as the CDC, WHO, or Mayo Clinic.

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