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Are UK public libraries heading in a new direction?

Since early 2020, we’ve seen the phrase “the new normal” used everywhere to describe every aspect of our lives post-coronavirus. Undoubtedly, COVID-19 had a huge impact on the library sector with closures happening globally, equally seen among institutional libraries as well as public libraries. As a result, we’ve seen new initiatives being adopted and revised strategies implemented. But how will these affect how we portray UK public libraries going forward? Are they heading in a new direction to successfully serve the community?

In this blog post, Karen Walker, Team Leader at Orkney Library and Archive, Katie Warriner, Information Services Librarian at Calderdale Libraries, and Trisha Ward, Director of Library Services, Libraries NI, discuss changes they have noted during the pandemic and shed light on what purpose, they believe, UK public libraries will serve for the community in “the new normal.”

How has the pandemic changed libraries’ core services?

As libraries begin to reopen at their full capacity, some of the initiatives that were specifically undertaken to support customers during the pandemic are now to be kept on permanently and offered as part of their core service. That is the case for the Request and Collect feature at Orkney Library, which has proved popular during lockdown and now will be a permanent addition. Similarly, during lockdown, Libraries NI “provided, out of necessity, services such as Book and Collect, (a service where staff select books for customers to collect at the library door) which have been very popular and exploit the stock knowledge of staff”. With these new book lending services becoming available, reading habits have changed considerably. “At the start of the first lockdown, the main option was e-reading/listening and we found that our Home Library Service expanded too,” says Walker, and Ward states that Libraries NI also saw a large move to online and many new “virtual members,” which they anticipate to continue going forward. “Anecdotally lots more people were reading but they read different genres and in different ways including a growth in eAudiobooks. Obviously this is a challenge for a public library service because of the higher cost and different licensing models with eBooks. We also invested in eNewspapers which has proved popular,” she adds.

How has the adoption of technological tools benefitted libraries?

At the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the benefits of technology became more apparent than ever before. Possibly every sector took advantage of it to deliver services as well as host events and meetings to include people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate. Ward mentions that “online programming, especially in relation to quite specialist areas of interest, such as heritage talks, were a new format of service delivery. We had large audiences for events, sometimes from overseas which would not have been possible previously.” Additionally, Walker admits that “widespread use of Microsoft Teams to hold meetings online anywhere in the world has made contacting colleagues throughout easier and contributed to recovery plans being implemented.” However, apart from the practicality of communication platforms such as Microsoft Teams or Zoom, social media has also played a critical role in bringing communities together during lockdowns. Libraries NI used Facebook for programme delivery, such as Storytime and Rhythm and Rhyme; Orkney Library put more activities online like Lego challenges, online jigsaws, Bookbug, or Haiku challenge; Calderdale Libraries used their very active social media channels for promoting their resources, service updates, and the Children’s Library Service posted regular activities. Additionally, Calderdale Libraries “produced several films on aspects of local history and this is something that we would like to continue after lockdown, staff time permitting.”

How will librarians’ responsibilities change as a result of the pandemic?

“We see libraries as social hubs which contribute to societal wellbeing. This builds on the sense of renewed community spirit which many communities experienced during the pandemic.”

With this in mind, will UK public librarians have new responsibilities post-coronavirus? Warriner suspects that council cutbacks, worsened by the pandemic, will force changes on library services; but personally speaking, she believes that COVID-19 will not alter the role of public librarians. On the other hand, Walker suspects that going forward, librarians “will have to observe Scottish Government Public Library guidance, carry out more regular risk assessments and ensure buildings are ventilated and possibly cap numbers within the building.” Additionally, from Libraries NI’s point of view, Ward suspects that longer term, the move to more agile working practices will continue with, for example, increased use of video conferencing for meetings and service delivery. In terms of libraries’ priorities changing going forward, there will be more emphasis on eServices and deliveries of books boxes from Orkney Libraries and Archives, whereas for Libraries NI the pandemic “raised the level of priority which libraries in Northern Ireland gives to programmes which support positive mental health including those activities which address loneliness. However, Libraries NI has always had a focus on literacy, health, and digital inclusion, which have become even more important,” says Ward.

What does the “new normal” look like for UK public libraries?

So, what does the “new normal” look like for public libraries in the UK? Will they now serve a different purpose for the community? Is there a new direction they’re heading towards? Calderdale Libraries, Orkney Library, and Libraries NI agree that no, there is not real change in terms of public libraries’ role in the future. “Our purpose is still to be a community space for all,” says Walker. Warriner assures that Calderdale Libraries “will continue to offer services that include and help all residents. The pandemic has only serviced to highlight disparities and it is more important than ever to offer educational opportunities by way of good quality and digital access in the form of PCs and assistance in using them wherever we are able to.” Ward agrees that the pandemic has highlighted the need for services they already deliver, such as online services, and the role of a library as the “third space.” “We see libraries as social hubs which contribute to societal wellbeing. This builds on the sense of renewed community spirit which many communities experienced during the pandemic and creates space to address the isolation which has resulted from the pandemic. We anticipate that the role of libraries as an anchor for high streets, replacing in some cases retail centres, is a new role. In this role, libraries will help to draw visitors to town centres, availing themselves of a range of cultural and creative activities,” Ward adds.

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us all new lessons, challenged our daily habits, and highlighted our strengths. When asked about one lesson from last year, Warriner emphasises how adaptable people are. “Vulnerable customers really needed us (we were helping to arrange food parcels and home-schooling IT equipment for some of our job club customers) and will continue to need us as we are much more than books.” Ward says that thanks to trialling many pilots during the pandemic, library staff learned to take risks in a safe way which gave them confidence to be innovative. And lastly, when asked the same question, Walker concluded, “be kind to each other.”

Featured image by Ria Puskas

Recent Comments

  1. Clancette

    Changes indeed! I wonder if something be done to instigate a system of teaching literacy within prisons?
    The majority of prisoners are often illiterate due to the lack of suitable education on their youth, and are incarcerated because of their ignorance.
    If these persons could learn to enjoy reading, the rest of their lives could be made more tolerable.

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