While there are troubling headlines covering the coronavirus every time we switch on the news, it’s not been all doom and gloom recently. Most news channels and social media threads have stories sharing acts of kindness and describing how vulnerable members are being looked after. Libraries’ are an important part of this, responding well to the crisis with new ways of delivering services. We’re not just talking content and information here (although of course this is hugely important) but also community. The wellbeing support that libraries provide so well is moving online. Keep reading for an impressive list of the many initiatives and resources they are providing in this way.
With so many depending on libraries for this contact, it’s incredibly important it continues. Not only does it mean continuity of engagement to help us all get through the outbreak, it ensures libraries remain ready and their role preserved for when their doors reopen. Fortunately they are making every effort to publicise what they have to offer remotely and that they are here for us all despite their doors being closed.
Despite these rays of optimism there is a flip side though: not everyone is currently able to benefit. From years supporting libraries to provide public access computers, we know what it means if a library’s PCs are temporarily unavailable. Prevented from getting online, their users are massively inconvenienced. So to have the whole People’s Network down at the same time is a terrible loss to those that depend on it (although of course sadly necessary with libraries doors’ closed as part of social distancing measures). We've also heard that digital outreach programmes are largely on hold due to the same precautions, which is a further blow to those on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The People’s Network is relied on for life critical tasks, including benefit applications, health information and jobseeking. Without these computers and the staff that support them, prospects of paying a bill online or booking a supermarket delivery slot are also vastly diminished. Practical matters aside, there’s also the matter of loneliness. Self-isolation is all the more isolating when you can’t interact online or even send emails.
Our latest annual survey results make the importance of this service clear. In the last year, around 80% of libraries had been seeing constant or growing numbers of people rely on them for help with digital skills and access.
When libraries return to full service again, demand for their onsite help and facilities will be greater than ever. Looking at our latest survey results from end of 2019, library plans for technology investment are certainly well placed, including widespread investment in computers and printers. These plans really must be fulfilled as this need is not about to go away. For further details on user needs and public libraries’ response, see the survey findings here.
When it comes to library content, it’s a much happier picture we’ve been seeing over recent weeks. Libraries’ catalogues of ebooks, audiobooks, online newspapers and magazines are seeing unparalleled levels of interest. The pandemic has certainly thrown these services into the spotlight, and no wonder, online is pretty much the only choice for new reading material, information and leisure resources while we’re living under lockdown.
It’s true to say that libraries’ online resources have been growing in prominence over the years. Ebook and audiobook downloads increase by around 20% year on year according to one prominent supplier’s figures. But now interest has truly gone into ‘overdrive’ as a spokesman for this company comments: “It has never been a busier time for accessing free library ebooks," and there has been “unprecedented demand and setting records for Libby app installs, checkout and new users in the last few weeks.”
Libraries have increased communication and marketing of these resources, explaining how to download them from home and increasing checkout limits, all of which is undoubtedly helping to drive demand further. West Sussex has reported that the daily number of online memberships has trebled and they've already seen a record monthly download of enewspapers.
It’s great news that library customers are making use of the resources at their disposal. Let's hope that waiting lists for ebook titles don't deter more from taking part.
Looking at how else library authorities are responding to the crisis, there are many inspiring examples. Here are just some of the ones we’ve come across:
- Social media channels continue to inform and entertain the public with words of advice and cheerfulness, including daily creative challenges, resources and quizzes #Librariesfromhome #Librarieswithoutwalls. Here’s the beginning of a twitter thread from Regina Public Library
- Book clubs are continuing online, with one school library using Microsoft Teams to support interactions, encouraging all to read more. Herts Libraries have just launched a virtual reading group using their Facebook channel and a selection of Borrowbox titles that allow simultaneous access
- There are reports of libraries live streaming story times and rhyme time sessions via Zoom, Facebook or YouTube, or publishing videos. Some are using folk tales if remaining cautious with copyright, although we’ve seen the need for permissions already temporarily suspended by special arrangement in Australia
- Academic libraries are putting their 3D printers to use producing protective equipment for health workers e.g. face shields. A Facebook group for Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies shares information and advice on organising locally and using 3D printers to boost supplies of equipment
- It's difficult to provide digital help remotely to those with limited skills, yet some amazing libraries are persevering, such as Barbican Library which is offering digital help with the only prerequisites being an internet connection and computer or tablet. Meanwhile West Sussex is providing phone support where feasible to adapt their outreach, helping those with devices who have provider apps already downloaded
- Where possible, library social groups are moving sessions online. Prime Time, an established group for over 50’s at Tower Hamlets, has become 'Prime Time Online' and proving a great success
- In Edinburgh, the Scottish Poetry Libraries’ creative writing workshop has moved to Youtube
- Many libraries are opting to keep their Wi-Fi running, to provide their communities with the opportunity to connect when close to library buildings. This has been formally supported in the US by the American Libraries Association which describes their public library locations as “essential nodes in our nation’s digital safety net”, especially at a time when so many school children, students and workers have been displaced and lost their usual opportunities to connect
- With our health and wellbeing always in mind, some libraries are finding novel ways to keep us active indoors, including Staffordshire Libraries’ Virtual Three Peaks Challenge
- Awareness of digital services is being given a boost by library services, through improved online presence and marketing. Here’s an example from West Sussex Libraries that has launched a new virtual hub
- Libraries are increasingly offering membership online. Some are also seeing support from vendors to offer easier access to content. For example, through Libby and OverDrive it’s become possible to offer digital cards for instant access based on your phone number
- Libraries continue to collate and signpost us to important lists and free sources of information, e.g. for online courses, MOOCs and audio materials. David Walliams’ new elevenses series was one that caught our eye from a Herts Libraries' tweet! Librarians are also applying their core skills to curate content on more traditional platforms, such as BBC TV and radio, to guide customers missing library books to some other form of engaging entertainment
So despite the more dominant headlines around the virus, there’s lots of positive news with many inspiring initiatives from libraries already underway to inform, educate and entertain. And no doubt there will be many more as library teams find their feet with remote technologies and explore what services work well and have most demand online. A useful discussion board on how libraries are organising themselves and sharing ideas is available from Library 2.0 with a collaborative resources page also available here.
It’s amazing how libraries are continuing to offer this wonderful sense of community despite the social distancing that may have otherwise come between us. Well done libraries!! May we continue to support them and acknowledge all they do both while their doors are closed and when they open once again.