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Merseyside developed a creative solution to this: a leter-writing scheme with 180 users of its Home Library Service to accompany its book deliveries; it sought to continue a human connection when physical contact was prohib- ited. Ipswich Library staff took it in turns to record an audiobook of an out-of-print book that a 102-year-old user mentioned as a child- hood favourite, while Coventry Library turned a boat into a mobile library.


Proving their value All those who spoke to The Bookseller believed the pandemic had made councils more aware of the value of libraries. Sue Williamson, director of libraries at Arts Council England, says: “Councils discovered what a treasure they had in the staff because they had such excellent customer care skills. They are great at giving out information, because that’s what library staff do, and they showed great empathy.”


“It has definitely changed the hearts and minds of councillors in terms of what libraries are for,” Poole says. “We hear them speaking much more positively about libraries post- pandemic than we did before. Before, there was a relevance question of, ‘What is this institution?’ What the pandemic has shown is that having a local, trusted communit institution, which helps people and arranges its services around what they need, is immensely powerful.”


What the pandemic has shown is that having a local, trusted community institution, which helps people and arranges its services around what they need, is immensely powerful Nick Poole, CILIP c.e.o.


While some library staff were redeployed into other essential council services in the first lockdown, many libraries also transformed their spaces into food banks or other vital communit spaces—with one even making PPE when there was a drastic shortage. “Gateshead switched on all of its 3D and laser cuters in its space, got hold of a patent for facial PPE equipment [visors] and went to town on it. Staff were working through the weekend to do that,” Hunter says. The library service had created 5,000 visors by the time the government had sent the local council 1,000, and supplied them to the local hospital, paramedics, 60-plus care homes, the


TheBookseller.com


also believe the volunteer demographic for volunteer-run libraries will change because of the ongoing health risks of having elderly people, who by and large fill such positions, in public-facing roles.


The road ahead


IRELAND’S LEABHARLANN LIBRARY HIT THE ROAD TO REACH READERS...


...WHILE OTHERS BOOSTED THEIR DIGITAL OFFER ON SITE AND ONLINE


Red Cross and undertakers.


However, it has not all been plain sailing for libraries over the past 18 months. Librarian and campaigner Alan Wylie believes the patchwork nature of closures, guidance and safet support proved particularly problematic in March 2020 when lockdown hit. “We were pushing for a national position [in England] to say all libraries should close,” he told The Bookseller. “The problem was that the government said it was up to individual councils, which means you get a patchwork position across the country.” Many told The Bookseller how the digital boom, which saw a spike in users download- ing e-books and audiobooks through libraries, highlighted the problematic nature of these licences for libraries. They are more expensive for libraries than licences for physical books and do not allow for universal download, oſten causing long delays for popular titles, with some publishers said to be particularly restrictive (see Opinion, p22). The labelling of libraries as “essential


services” last summer, ensuring many stayed open through the subsequent lockdowns, also drew some criticism. “I got lots of messages from library workers who felt very unsafe, some who were extremely clinically vulner- able, or were terrified they were going to catch the virus or bring it home to vulnerable family members,” Wylie says. “Provision for PPE for staff was also very patchy. Some councils had proper provision, so staff were provided with masks, hand sanitiser, Perspex screens on the desks, but other councils didn’t [or] there hadn’t been proper risk assessments and health and safet measures in place.” Many


What effect will the pandemic and lockdowns have in regard to the future of libraries? Wylie emphasises that many councils still have to fill holes in their balance sheets, citing post-2010 austerit measures and Covid shortfalls. He suggests that some councils have used Covid as “a smokescreen” to close libraries more permanently, citing cuts to services in Croydon, Lewisham, Windsor and Maidenhead, with “the main batle in Glasgow”, where charit Glasgow Life, which runs the libraries, has lost £38m, forcing its venues to close. “Some councils saw the fact they could close libraries for 18 months as a sign they could close them for longer.” Others are more optimistic. “Libraries haven’t been hit by Covid as hard as we had any right to expect,” Ian Anstice, editor of Public Library News, says. “I was expecting more serious budget cuts in March this year and they didn’t materialise... So it gives us breathing space to show if the public use us or not. The next few months are crucial for prov- ing to councils that we are still a desirable, essential service that people use, so [councils] don’t cut us in 2022.”


Poole says that while there are closures, some areas such as Doncaster are seeing the opening of new services—and he predicts an ongoing library boom in the north. “It tends to be in the big cit regions in the north-east... there’s a lot of new civic infrastructure emerg- ing from the old. You also see a lot of authori- ties merging different services into one, so [combining a library] with a gallery or even health services. In Manchester and Leeds, there is a renewed energy around education, learning, building businesses, economic recovery, enterprises and digital ambition. If you’re a cit looking to build a future skills-based economy out of the post-Victorian architecture, then a library is a great way to do that.”


Poole hopes that the digital flourishing will continue to be supported post-pandemic, as he wants the innovation to continue. “We’ve seen astonishing digital engagement. Some libraries saw 600% or 700% rise in reader registrations over lockdown,” he says. “One library said the pandemic had accelerated its use of tech by 10 years—they couldn’t get the budget or provision, but suddenly they had all this online content. But the challenge is, where do we go forward from here?”


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