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The COVID-19 Pandemic Has Proven Just How Important Libraries Are

By April 5, 2021Libraries, News

Libraries can and should be seen as indications of just how great a certain town or city is. For hundreds of years, libraries have opened their doors to all, and have given visitors access to thousands of books for free.

In the modern age, libraries also give access to free computers, music, films, and even events. They are not just places of study, they are linchpins of the community and are relied upon and valued by many.

Despite this, libraries have faced increasingly difficult times, and are often the victims of budget cuts, not just in the UK, but across the world. While many businesses and organisations have struggled during the pandemic, including libraries, it has highlighted what an essential service they are.

As an article in Observer states, the pandemic forced many libraries across the world to close during various lockdowns, and this, in turn, showed just essential the numerous services supplied by libraries are. While some libraries’ finances were negatively affected by the pandemic, some benefited. Libraries in York, UK were given an extra £17,000 from the city council to help extend their virtual services.

Despite this, library managers were still forced to carefully budget their finances. “We closed on March 14, but by the first week of May we knew that as a city we were facing a pretty big budget shortfall, so the library placed 60 percent of our staff on temporary furlough,” explains Kate Larsen, director of Tacoma Public Library. “That was just to realise some of the immediate budget savings for this current budget year.”

The same was true for those in the US. The Merryl and James Tisch director at the New York Public Library, Brian Bannon, said: “We were able to reallocate almost overnight a small portion of our print budget because we were buying fewer copies of new releases, etc, in their current form.”

While most libraries were unable to open their doors to the public, they were still able to remain connected to would-be visitors via pre-existing online content, as well as new remote services that helped keep their community together. Due to the fact many libraries have been embracing online technology over the last few decades, they were actually more prepared to offer services during a lockdown than most might assume. “The good news was that many of our online services were already live, for example, our reading app has been running for over a decade,” Bannon told Observer. “So we were able to improve our visibility and advertise the 300,000 materials we had available.”

“We had a strong digital presence already,” chief executive of Suffolk Libraries in the U.K., Bruce Leeke agreed. “Apps and programmes available saw a great uptick in use—with our press reader app use increasing by over 287 percent during lockdown.”

Libraries also launched new content for online visitors to use and enjoy. “We’ve launched a number of online services including live book readings, education programmes, painting classes and games,” said Leeke. “Over lockdown, we also started live streaming of services through Facebook live—everything from early years activities to networking groups for older people. Between March and the end of May, we live-streamed nearly 2,500 live events.”

Many online services didn’t get as much attention from the public as they might have prior to lockdown, but now users realise how much content is on offer digitally, and many libraries aim for that to continue even after the pandemic is over. “When we locked down, those staff who were not furloughed worked tirelessly to take libraries online. Now we are physically open again, we have two services running in parallel with many new users through our online services,” said assistant of Explore York Libraries and Archives, Gillian Holmes. “We are seeing bigger audiences online and we will be continuing these kinds of events alongside in-person programs as soon as these are safe to restart.”

While obeying lockdown rules and keeping the public safe, many libraries have found ways to still give the public access to physical books. In the US, the New York Public Library and Tacoma Library have both introduced curb-side pickups, which allows readers to collect books without direct contact, and returned books are quarantined for 72 hours.

Similar plans have been used in the UK, with Leeke saying: “In the start of July, about a week and a half after opening, we started our reservation service so you could reserve the books you wanted and collect them. And more recently, over the last two to three weeks, we’ve reintroduced browsing with one-way systems and social distancing and limited people depending on the size of the site.”

As well as providing education and entertainment, many libraries also feature community outreach programs, which work with more at-risk people, from the elderly to those struggling with mental health issues. Realising that many people may feel more isolated than ever due to lockdown, libraries in Suffolk began a ‘lifeline telephone service’ which saw library staff making calls to vulnerable or isolated users. “We made 6,700 calls between March and the end of May to vulnerable people—we helped people to access help and support but also just provided access to a friendly voice on the phone,” said Leeke.

In an effort to make sure the underprivileged had access to the technology required to use its online services, the New York Public Library teamed up with the Department of Education. “We were able to work together on the distribution of 300,000 internet-enabled devices to our existing families at home who needed to complete the school year,” Bannon said. “We also started a ‘book away’ program where we gave out free books, particularly for kids who weren’t able to check out materials online.”

Some London-based libraries also began hosting virtual IT training lessons to help those unfamiliar with computers use Zoom to contact their friends and family, as well as order essential items like groceries online, and other useful tasks. Some countries are looking at an end to lockdown, but the libraries there aim to keep their online services running even when things are back to normal.

Many have lost their jobs since the pandemic broke out, and once again libraries will be there to help support their communities by helping people find work, enhance existing skills, and offer children new avenues of education. The fact is, during this time of crisis, we have been reminded that libraries are perhaps more important now than they ever have been.

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