This week Carnegie UK published Making a Difference: Libraries, Lockdown and Looking Ahead. Today on the SLIC blog Dr Jenny Peachey from Carnegie UK talks about public library services and their response to COVID-19.
Our new research evidences the positive impact public library services had on those who engaged with them during lockdown. A public poll of 2,196 adults across the UK reveals that 3 in 10 UK adults turned to library services in lockdown. Of these, 68% said it provided them with useful information, 63% said it helped them (or their children) avoid boredom and 60% said it helped them feel less alone.
From increasing e-resources, developing digital activities and events for people of all ages, to delivering tech and books, and utilising the library building as a safe space for care home and care-at-home workers, library services in Scotland innovated and flexed to meet emerging needs in their communities.
Yet the services, activities and offers that were delivered over lockdown didn’t develop themselves: they would never have come into being were it not for library staff. We drew on CILIP’s Professional Skills and Knowledge Base framework to gauge which skills, if any, came to the fore during lockdown. We found that staff within services drew heavily on their adaptability and innovation skill set.
Moreover, 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. For example, around 90% of staff drew on empathy and general customer service, whilst 81% drew on their organising and managing knowledge and information skills.
As one frontline member of staff reflected of her experience on the council Covid-19 helpline: “I spoke to one lady for one hour … She thought I was a trained mental health nurse … Working in a library we are used to listening to vulnerable, lonely people.”
Whilst a sense of how much staff and service delivered came through the 1,196 responses to our staff survey and 22 interviews we carried out with Heads of Service, it also emerged that this was not a universal experience. We heard concerns about the limits of digital at this time in terms of reach and of how digital activities are not a like-for-like replacement for physical activities. We heard worry about what the loss of a civic space into which people could enter and have the opportunity – but not the obligation – to interact, meant for members of the public. Moreover, finances, differing attitude to risk within local authorities, the extent of understanding within a local authority of what the library service does and the extent to which library services have a voice in local authority structures emerged as barriers to consistent, quality delivery across the board.
Survey respondents also pointed to how factors internal to their service such as organisational culture had the potential to make or break their service’s ability to respond to the pandemic. Also noted in affecting library services’ ability to respond were the impacts of effective communication and engagement with the public, preparedness and contingency planning, the strength of local partnerships and varying levels in staff digital skills.
Public library services pre-Covid were already contributing to a range of key policy areas: strengthening communities; employment and financial wellbeing; education; digital inclusion; physical and mental health; knowledge and information; cultural engagement; literacy; and equality, diversity and inclusion. Following both the strengths of the service and staff, and the barriers they faced, it is clear that the sector needs to continue to adapt and innovate – and requires adequate funding and support in order to fulfil its potential and deliver for individuals and communities across the UK.