When lockdown came in March 2020, libraries were not considered ‘essential’ and staff were forced to stay home. However, our staff were keenly aware of how vital the library was for many people – a fact which became increasingly obvious as the pandemic unfolded. When working from home, staff phoned around to help people use our e-services and talking newspaper, but often the contact itself was just as important a service. For some people, a call from library staff was the only human contact they had in weeks.
Our eBook service was already strong pre-Covid-19 as were our staff’s digital skills – this helped us adapt and perform well during the full lockdown. We also had good social media which helped us communicate. But what lockdown made clear was how much people needed and valued the physical, community space of their library and the face to face service. We ‘sourced devices’ for people through the Connecting Scotland programme, and tried our best to help them connect from home – but it could not replace a place to go, with staff to help.
On our ‘daily exercise’, as we passed the chained upswings and locked public parks, we saw customers lurking outside the library to use our Wi-Fi. It is hard for people who have broadband at home to understand just how disadvantaged people are when they can’t use library computers. Access to information, news, shopping, welfare, travel bookings, health advice and simple family communication was suddenly cut off for many, at a time they needed it most. Even where people do have the skills and equipment, connectivity can be poor in rural Shetland.
Customers missed books too of course, and it was galling that rules didn’t allow us in to pick a bag of large print books for a homebound customer, while Amazon deliveries of everything imaginable were speeding around the isles. As soon as the rules gave us an inch (late May 2020) our staff swooped back to the Library to begin our home delivery programme. The mobile library is important in Shetland, and we were able to replace it with door-to-door deliveries for our mobile customers, then extend the service to anyone else who wanted it. It was a delight to deliver huge bags of books to young families again and to get book lending again all over the isles.
Soon after deliveries we launched ‘click and collect’, got our computer access running and then our library doors open again by July 2020. We installed various restrictions designed to discourage customer ‘dwell time’, or indeed staff socialising, but at least we were open. Our most important regular event, Bookbug early literacy sessions, had to remain online until 2021, but our Christmas 2020 Bookbug video shows the inventiveness of the library team in making it as fun as they possibly could.
These two years have needed a huge team effort and we have all had to change our working practices, sometimes several times over. It has strengthened our service, but that has only been possible because of the initiative and enthusiasm of our staff, and because they are flexible and customer-focused. There was scarcely any ‘jobsworthyness’ – they just rolled up their sleeves and got on with anything that needed doing. That might not always be universal in libraries, but I think that more often than not library staff know what public service means. Library jobs are about customer service, and staff tend to get a lot of appreciation back, which adds to their job satisfaction. This has been even truer during the pandemic, with heartfelt ‘positive feedback’ coming directly to all our staff on a daily basis.
There are public services that haven’t bounced back from the pandemic, that are limping along on low power with customers still losing out. There will be a variety of reasons, but perhaps in some organisations, there is not that public service dedication nor urgency about service recovery. We realise every day how blessed we are with the staff team we have built up. We moved the entire library into a new building at the end of 2021, and the team spirit and can-do attitude built up during the pandemic really helped us tackle that huge project.
We are all learning that there is no returning to ‘normal’. In this time of social crisis, libraries are needed more than ever and staff are rising to the challenge. Shetland as a community has always treasured its library, but we are pleased to fly the flag for libraries on Twitter too. We can make people around the world smile just by picking a fight with Orkney Library – one thing that didn’t change during the whole pandemic!