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When we closed the doors on Suffolk’s libraries earlier this year, some staff shed a tear. Lockdown was hard for everyone – and hearing that a few librarians struggled as their workplaces were shuttered, their colleagues were furloughed, and the range of services they’d worked hard to lay on on were frozen, might induce a cry of “Come on, it’s just books!” But for librarians it is never “just books”. We like to say we are “books AND …” a space for mothers to catch their breath while their kids romp around or take part in a reading group, for pensioners to come and read the paper, and for those who might have no one else to speak to to share a smile, a “hello” while they pick up a new book. A warm, safe space for anyone who seeks to find it.
Since they were a lifeline for so many people, the closure of libraries certainly had a significant impact on local communities. That “AND …” seemed in danger of withering away. But my fellow librarians’ despair was brief, as public libraries are nothing if not resourceful. Despite the horrors unfolding, we rapidly came to see that lockdown presented an opportunity to us. We could not offer our full service with our physical locations closed, but we instinctively understood we could bolster some elements and deliver others in a different way. Our mission was to reach out to people beyond the four walls of the library buildings.
It is often said librarians suffer from a marketing issue. This is a profession hardwired not to boast about itself. But lockdown forced us to confront and subvert this mindset to ensure that people knew that we were still very much functioning and there were plenty of ways to access our services. A new report by the Carnegie UK Trust shows how successful these efforts were. It found that one in three people in the UK engaged with libraries during lockdown, despite the closures. It seems libraries didn’t just speak up, but nigh on shouted out during lockdown, and we are determined to maintain this noise as the country begins to reopen.
A substantial part of this success came through a significant increase in ebook borrowing – with 465,200 digital issues between April and July – a pattern reflected across the country, according to figures from Libraries Connected. Feedback from eLibrary users ranged from “thank you for still providing something” to “I never knew I could get all of this for free!” We had hundreds of new signups to these digital services.
Book clubs, cooking classes and craft workshops moved online too. Our early-years session facilitators switched classes to Facebook Live. Storytimes for children took on a whole new interactive edge, with mums and dads sending in comments asking for shoutouts for their child – which the kids loved. A colleague who hosted one of these groups was recognised in the local supermarket and felt like a celebrity.
We have also had a network of local volunteers delivering books, creativity packs and food parcels. Frontline colleagues made more than 8,000 calls to vulnerable library users through our Lifelines service, set up in response to the pandemic in May to make contact with our regular users who were now unable to come in.
The response we’ve had has been a mix of utter joy and gentle heartbreak. Rich stories have surfaced of colleagues going the extra mile. Librarians in Ipswich made a bespoke audio recording of Portrait of Clare by Francis Brett Young for 102-year-old Doris, who recalled the novel from her childhood when chatting to staff on the phone. Hearing these stories, I knew we had stumbled on something wonderful. As a county-wide service, we have committed to keeping the best of these things going once we reopened.
We reopened our doors on 7 July with a new “select and collect” service, offering borrowers the chance to order a selection of books picked for them by library staff based on their interests. Since then, other services have been rolling out slowly and our libraries are now offering browsing and computer usage. Visitor numbers are not what they were, and we have to limit numbers due to social distancing, but people are slowly finding their way back to us as they emerge into the world. We are again shouting about the fact we are open. We plan to get back to our full range of activities once it is safe to do so, but until then we will keep using our imaginations to reach people in their homes.
There is a storm facing the country as it emerges from lockdown – made up of economic, social and health crises. I believe that all the services public libraries offer – digital and physical – will be needed to help communities weather this. In these difficult times, people will be looking for trustworthy and accurate help and advice, which has always been at the core of what a library does.
It would be easy to say that by proving we can exist in a digital capacity, libraries might be shooting themselves in the foot. I am often asked what the future of library buildings is, and my honest response is that despite the impressive things we have achieved remotely, nothing replaces the person-to-person connection found in a library. The queues outside testify to this, and more than 250,000 physical books have been borrowed since reopening. We are not about to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
The future possibilities for public libraries are, well, not endless exactly, but the list is long, varied and thrilling. Like all library services we have taken our fair share of cuts over the years and we have saved close to 40% of the original libraries budget since 2011. I won’t lie – it has been a bumpy road these past 10 years as we’ve had to make tough decisions, but we are resilient, and we have grit. I have resisted the urge to use any tired library cliches, but here’s one to end on: post-lockdown, an exciting new chapter for public libraries awaits.
• Krystal Vittles is head of service delivery at Suffolk Libraries
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Why lockdown was the plot twist that libraries needed | Libraries