Public libraries scored a hit during lockdown. Use of online resources rocketed by up to 600% and has now settled at an overall 170% up.
Most services improvised extra online activities, from book groups and baby sessions to a watch-it-together film club. But what about reopening the buildings? As always with public libraries, it varies from place to place. The Summer Reading Challenge happened but focused on outdoor activities. Most libraries are now open for PC use and book collection but only by appointment and for short visits (to avoid overcrowding). Some allow browsing. Smaller libraries make social distancing tricky. Bradford, for instance, still has four branches “closed until further notice due to current Covid-19 advice”.
In Scotland, there is still no reopening information for 61 out of 481 libraries. A huge battle rages in Glasgow, where four libraries remain closed: three have a demonstration outside every Saturday, and a mass protest march took place in July. Suffolk, on the other hand, has gone fully back to normal at all branches. Users are told: “You can carry out all pre-pandemic activities, such as browsing freely, using study spaces or simply spending time in the library”. Activities restarted in July. Face masks and keeping a safe distance from other customers and staff are required.
The cautious return to reopening will continue. It won’t be easy. People are nervous. Arts Council England reports: “Caution is evident among those across society who have been impacted most by the pandemic, including disabled people and the clinically extremely vulnerable. Their representatives tell us they are feeling frightened about revisiting creative and cultural spaces.”
New layouts designed for distancing, Perspex screens and similar precautions will be needed for a long time. Libraries’ friendly, informal atmosphere will be hard for staff to maintain. Another problem is financial. Local councils, already hard-hit by years of austerity, have spent heavily on pandemic work. Will library closures be a target? The picture won’t fully emerge until next year. Iain Moore, commercial director of Libraries Connected, says that “the majority of libraries have had a single-year extension to budgets, with the expectation of bigger cuts next year”.
The success of online lending, he notes, won’t help. Lending an e-book costs four times more than loaning a print book; the main cost is due to licensing restrictions, Moore says. Print has recovered strongly, even with all the restrictions: loans were back to 85% of pre-Covid levels in July. Moore adds: “The average cost of borrowing is already greater than pre-Covid: physical books are at 85% of pre-Covid levels, while e-books are at 170% of those levels. If physical borrowing gets back to (and possibly exceeds) pre-Covid, which is not unlikely, then this becomes unsustainable.”
The digital dilemma
There is also continuing demand for online activities. Even when they go live again, users are saying, they want the option of participating from home. As staff return to work in buildings, it will be costly (or impossible) to do it all. Lambeth is experimenting (with South Bank University) on ways to mount “hybrid” events in future. But it is difficult, and will require investment in equipment. Much depends on councils’ grasp of libraries’ role in aiding recovery and their understanding that physical spaces matter. December 2020 saw the notorious pronouncement by the leader of Walsall Council: “We are not planning to reopen all the libraries at the drop of a hat… I’m a firm believer that if we haven’t used something for the past four or five months, do we really need it?”
Only recently, the libraries portfolio holder in Bristol enthused: “No longer are Bristol Libraries bound by their buildings, waiting for you to visit; the library can now come to you.” It’s a real fear, then, that the pandemic experience will encourage the existing trend for councils to downgrade buildings (and staff) and push online usage as the essence of “the 21st century library”.
This is dead wrong. Lockdown brutally exposed the reality of the digital divide. At least 10 million people in Britain are without adequate (or any) IT access or skills. With so many basic services now online-only, physical access and support in the library will long remain an expensive core offer. The rest hardly needs spelling out. Public libraries are key social infrastructure. They bring people together, reduce loneliness, support education and social cohesion and, incidentally, keep alive the whole concept of a public space. And they cost peanuts—less than 1% of any council’s budget.
As people emerge from lockdown, it’s hard to imagine a cheaper way to meet the multiplicity of needs that will soon become painfully apparent. Suffolk Libraries last year published research by accountants that showed activities in library buildings paid back £8 for every £1 spent. Just three bog-standard activities were analysed: groups for older people, mothers and babies, and a general drop-in session. The gains ranged from improved literacy to fewer GP visits. Now, Suffolk may be the first to be able to report how it’s all going in the new normal.
Laura Swaffield is the chair of The Library Campaign