Libraries’ online services have taken the spotlight over this lockdown period, providing much needed community support, information and (not least) some light-hearted distractions. New memberships to use ebooks and other digital services are up 600% on this time last year. But while this is wonderful news, there are two notable things to consider.
Firstly, libraries’ physical buildings, their resources and staff are still sorely missed by many of their users and their reopening will be warmly welcomed. While online networks and tools have been the saving grace for many of us under lockdown, they are not in reach for everyone. Concern about the digital divide featured strongly in the ‘Digital Thinkin’ hosted by Libraries Connected and Tortoise this week. As some attendees commented:
“The danger lies in thinking technology can replace what we normally do. A lot of people only have a smartphone, not a computer. Rhymetimes online then are not really viable.”
“We need to remember the digital divide e.g. 1 million children with nothing suitable for online homework (laptops, internet), and a 1/3 of 16-24 year olds with mobiles only.”
Lack of equipment means many people are limited on what they can enjoy of libraries' digital services. Plus they need computers and Wi-Fi to get other tasks done. Access to benefits is one problem – there have been nearly two million new Universal Credit claims since mid March, all requiring online access. Remote learning for schoolchildren is another, with the need to download lessons and homework with no or maybe one shared laptop in many households. And then there are the people living in isolation needing to keep in touch with family and friends and no email, zoom or social media.
The second thing to note is that a small minority of libraries have in fact provided physical access to computers during this time (although they are very much the exception). It has been so essential to continue People’s Network provision that some libraries have found a way to do it.
At Westminster Libraries, Church Street and Victoria branches have been providing computer services and staff support with some very carefully orchestrated social distancing measures. It’s been a big success – last week over 100 people visited each library to use the PCs. They are now working on getting a similar service running in one of the Kensington and Chelsea libraries.
Here’s a brief update on the first week of the PC offer at Westminster from the members of staff who put themselves forward to help:
“Everyone is grateful that we are offering the service. One guy came in to apply for jobs. He said “I don’t have a computer and I needed to get the application off before the deadline. If you didn’t have this service I wouldn’t have been able to apply”. It’s a crucial service we are providing. People are coming in and thanking us, we have even got biscuits as thank you. I was unsure as to whether I should volunteer since the social distancing rules. I decided to visit the library to see whether I felt comfortable. Once inside the library I was greeted by Security guard followed by the cleaner who directed me to use the wall mounted hand sanitiser. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by the layout of the library inside and out and the staff provisions which were provided."
Above: PC offer layout within Church Street Library (left) and Victoria Library (right)
In each case, the PC offer is in a limited area of the library. A professional cleaner cleans the computer and chair between users and staff are provided with appropriate PPE. The whole area has a thorough clean daily. Customers visiting to use the PCs aren’t able to browse the book stacks or use other facilities. Fortunately the wall-mounted hand sanitisers were installed shortly before lockdown when it was unclear how long libraries were expected to remain open.
We should also note here that throughout lockdown, some libraries have provided IT support to their communities by phone – invaluable to those who have previously downloaded a library app but got stuck downloading an ebook, or are wrestling with using their new tablet or laptop. Two examples here include Barbican Library and West Sussex Libraries, both of which were mentioned in our March blog.
There are various ideas on how libraries will start to reopen more widely, together with a lot of concerns on how to keep staff and users safe. Ideas around computer use include marking alternate workstation PCs as broken (a feature available in Lorensbergs’ netloan PC booking system which broadcasts a broken notice to the PC screen to make clear it’s not in use. It also records the broken details for later reporting purposes.) Removing some keyboards and chairs may also help users to stay safely distanced when using computers.
When it comes to books, it’s anticipated that home library services involving doorstep deliveries may be among the first services to restart. But even here, there’s a lot to work out for delivering a successful, safe service.
What we are very confident about though is that libraries will work out a way to reopen their doors and bring their services back to users as soon as they possibly can. As it’s clear from the Westminster example above, library services are essential to their communities. While these needs exist and with the right support, our libraries and their multi-talented staff will find a way to meet them.