England & Wales, Scotland Communities and society, Covid-19, Culture, sport and tourism

UK public library services: lockdown and looking ahead

Our new research reveals that 3 in 10 adults (an estimated 15 million people) engaged with public library services across the UK during the spring/summer lockdown. Of this number, 64% said this engagement had a positive impact on their wellbeing; 63% said it helped them feel more connected to their community; and 60% said it helped them feel less alone. These figures, derived from a public poll of 2,196 adults across the UK, speak volumes about how public library staff worked hard to deliver services in extremely restricted circumstances and the role services and staff can play in supporting individuals and communities navigating the impact of Covid-19. But what did library services offer, what exactly did staff do and what barriers did they face – and perhaps most important of all, what next for services?

Library Offers: digital, physical and buildings-based services

During lockdown, the majority of library staff across the UK worked hard to increase the availability of e-resources, convert activities into digital formats, reach out through wellbeing phone calls, support people over the phone with questions about tech, expand home delivery services to reach more people (such as those who were shielding) and provide more forms of support (such as activity packs for children). Some interesting examples of library offers developed in lockdown include:

  • Make Fest: Halton Library Service Staff extended their existing partnership with Mako Create, a local digital media education company, to provide educational digital making activities and a Make Fest during lockdown. The focus of the activities was computer game design. The Festival was co-anchored, so the children’s librarian was the face of the library service and Mako Create provided the specialist expertise in regard to digital making skills. 7,000 people engaged with Make Fest.
  • Welfare calls: Kirklees Library Service Staff conducted over 8,000 welfare calls during lockdown. The idea for welfare calls came from two front line staff and calls were made with repurposed equipment, with no new equipment being purchased. Staff used information from the library database to register 16-17,000 people over 70 and set up a system for calling them. They tried to arrange this geographically so that library users spoke to people who knew them. Where asked for, they did repeat calls and put customers in touch with other services if struggling or vulnerable.
  • Ready Reads: Hampshire Library Service Staff developed a book bag service called ‘Ready Reads’. They designed and built a system whereby people could request a bag of books over the phone or online and the contents of the book bags were curated for them by library staff. ‘Ready Reads’ was a hugely popular service, attracting over 4,000 subscribers in the first three weeks, with 41,500 books and other items being distributed in the first four weeks of the scheme.
  • Health and Wellbeing Hubs: North Ayrshire Five library buildings in North Ayrshire were set up as health and wellbeing hubs for care home staff and care-at-home staff. These hubs provided a bridge between work and home life, a space where staff could take time out to recharge their batteries, talk to colleagues and line managers about the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on themselves and their service users, and access support information on a range of health and wellbeing topics. Feedback from the carers was very positive and services saw many repeat visits – around 560 each week.
  • Access to PCs: Westminster and Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library Services The Library Service offered PC access in closed buildings with strict health and safety measures in place. It was an emergency, basic offer for people with no internet access at home. Members of the public could use the PC for 45 minutes for a restricted range of services, including making contact with family and friends, banking and so forth. During lockdown, just under 400 access sessions per week were taken up across Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea.

Library Staff Skills: overlap between staff skills and specialist Covid-19 outreach services

Findings from the staff survey reveal that some of the specialist outreach services implemented by local authorities in lockdown required or mirrored the core skill set that library staff deployed day-to-day pre-Covid-19. These include skills relating to customer service, learning and support, and information and knowledge management.

Specifically, of those library staff who were redeployed:

  • 92% drew on the core library skill of empathy.
  • 94% drew on the core library skill of general customer service.
  • 65% drew on core skills relating to identifying and supporting vulnerable people.
  • 63% drew on core skills relating to community engagement.
  • 73% drew on core skills relating to supporting people to navigate services.
  • Almost 60% drew on the core skills of providing digital literacy support or helping people to find information online.
  • 81% drew on core skills relating to organising and managing knowledge and information.

These figures reflect the great work library staff did manning support helplines and supporting delivery and other hubs. They also reflect the skills and work involved in setting up entire hubs and call centres. You can read about the centres Denbighshire and Middlesbrough Library Services set up in the report.

Barriers

Research findings also show that library services’ ability to respond to community need and the nature of their response was highly variable. Barriers fell into one of three broad categories:

  • The limitations of digital delivery: digital exclusion impacted upon reach or services; digital formats had a negative impact on services’ ability to provide quality interaction and support; and services’ inability to provide access to physical resources. Of particular note is how digital versions of in-person library activities were not like-for-like replacements and did not deliver the same outcomes as the in-person offer. The loss of a civic, agenda-free space that could be entered without payment or permission, providing the potential but not the obligation for interaction and encounters, was also felt.
  • ‘External’ factors: finances; differing attitudes to risk within local authorities; the extent of understanding within a local authority of what the library service does and how it can contribute; and the extent to which the library service has a voice in local authority structures.
  • ‘Internal’ factors: consistency and visibility of the library offer during lockdown; organisational culture; effective communication and engagement with the public; preparedness and contingency planning; partnerships; and digital skills.

These barriers impacted on the ability of public library services to act as a service of first resort in the way they did before lockdown: a safety net for communities, the lonely or isolated, and ‘borderline’ or ’hidden’ vulnerable people. In some cases, it also meant that staff were unable to draw on their valuable skill set to support communities and local authorities in the most effective way.

What next and key messages for local government

Covid-19 will continue to impact on family and social relationships, health and mental health, education, employment and the economy, and continue to deepen the existing fault lines in our society. It has also placed primary services under considerable strain. But we know from the work of public library services pre-lockdown as well as during lockdown, that they have the capacity to contribute across a range of areas:

  • Strengthening communities
  • Employment and financial wellbeing
  • Education
  • Digital inclusion
  • Physical and mental health
  • Knowledge and information
  • Cultural engagement
  • Literacy
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion

To ensure the public library sector can enable, empower and equalise by the outcomes they work towards across these areas, it needs to continue to adapt and innovate. It also requires adequate funding and support in order to fulfil its potential and deliver for individuals and communities across the UK. In particular, the following are required:

  • A sustainable financial settlement in the context of funding for public services.
  • Higher status and stronger voice in local authority structures for library services.
  • To value and invest in skilled and confident staff.
  • A positive organisational culture that supports leadership at all levels.
  • A high-quality blended service.
  • The longstanding, complex issues around e-books to be resolved.
  • Coherent and consistent national offers to be balanced with the power of the regional and the appeal and benefits of the hyperlocal.
  • Effective and powerful advocacy by the library sector

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