Libraries - it's not just about the books

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 12:19pm

Since our Twitter thread about library services back in July, lots of things have changed. The list of things we’re allowed to do has continued to get longer than the list of things we’re not.  Councils have been able to start thinking about what comes next, not just having to react to what’s just happened. It seems like a good time to reflect on where Council services have been – in this example, library services – and where they might go next.

Even in the thick of lockdown, libraries carried on offering digital content like e-books and e-magazines, doing story times and book clubs online. As restrictions eased, many worked out ways of getting books to people who wanted and needed them, either through deliveries or click and collect services. 

The big change since July is that many libraries are now letting people use their IT facilities, although you need to book in advance. It’s not the library service as you would have experienced it back in February, but it’s getting closer to it.
So what have we learned? Well, as welcome and as important as the books are, libraries aren’t just about the books. That’s not the learning bit- it’s commonplace these days to talk about libraries as community hubs; services that can take the edge off all sorts of disadvantage and exclusion, not least digital exclusion. But that’s not necessarily reflected in the way the service has emerged from lockdown.

From an outsider’s point of view, looking at which parts of the service were able to be reinstated most quickly, it looks as though the books might have been the easy bit.  That’s not to downplay the hard work that people have put into working out the logistics, but it’s evident that Councils were able to come up with a way of getting books out to people whilst maintaining hygiene and social distancing relatively quickly.

Working out how to let people use the IT equipment took a bit longer; hardly surprising as there are some additional complications with that scenario. People have to be able to physically come inside the building, which opens up a whole other can of worms. Nevertheless, libraries are working out how to do it with appointment systems, enhanced cleaning regimes and new kit like disposable keyboard covers.  That’s important, maybe more important than books, because digital inclusion is a real problem for some people in our communities, and it’s a problem that’s only become more pressing as more and more public services become digital by default.  In many cases digitalisation has accelerated as a response to the pandemic, and while it’s been really inspiring to see public services embrace digital solutions with such speed and flexibility, libraries have a vital part to play in supporting those who could otherwise be left behind.

The bit that remains difficult – and largely absent so far - is the community element. That’s not a criticism of libraries – one of the defining features of the pandemic and our attempts to slow its spread is the way that we have had to be physically separate from friends and family and our wider community. That’s been difficult for everyone, but for people who already had limited social connections, it’s been particularly tough. Signposting to other services, a meeting place for various community  groups, or just a bit of a chat with the librarian and a sit down in the warm are all aspects of the library service that are often overlooked, but they are arguably the most important of all for the people who benefit from them.

Libraries have been making every effort to maintain their service through the pandemic, but like many services, the approach so far has, out of necessity, been pragmatic. Books are borrowed and returned because that’s a relatively simple transaction. Informal but vital community links and networks remain on hold because we haven’t worked out a safe way of doing that yet, although no-one would dismiss its importance.  

It’s no surprise that in the context of the pandemic councils have been focusing on how they can deliver services; given the challenges involved, it seems unfair to point out that they haven’t had much chance to think about why they do things. No-one’s underestimating how challenging the last few months have been, but it’s worth pointing out that alongside the challenges there are opportunities to rebuild services in a different way, that will mean they’re better suited to the 21st century.

As councils move forward into the new normal, it’ll be interesting to see whether they will focus on the traditional concepts of what a service does – in this case, the books – or whether they’re able to take the opportunity to think more deeply about their purpose  - the ‘why’, as well as the ‘how’.

The pandemic has shown us over and over again that there were already significant inequalities in our society. In this example, people with strong familial and social networks, or easy access to digital services, will have been able to weather this storm with greater ease and fewer negative effects than those without. Pre-existing fault lines have widened and become harder to ignore. Public services will have a vital role to play in deciding whether those fault lines get still wider, or start to close.

About the author:

Rachel Harries has worked for Audit Wales since 2015. She currently works in the Local Government Performance Audit team, giving her experience across a wide range of audit topics. Before that, she spent 15 years working in various corners of Local Government, including a year or so in a library.