Post-pandemic libraries

This week’s special Library Focus issue of The Bookseller includes some fascinating titbits from upcoming history The Library about the complex ways in which libraries were affected by the two World Wars. Inevitably one is tempted to wonder how future historians will look back on the extraordinary period we have just been living through, and assess what the pandemic has meant for the public library service. Will this turn out to have been a moment that finally demonstrated to council leaders just how flexible and innovative libraries can be, the start of a new, truly hybrid library provision? Or one that provided an opportunity for council chiefs to turn temporary closures into permanent ones?

The jury is out. As we emerge from the crisis, many libraries are still in the process of reopening branches, and the picture is incredibly mixed. There have clearly been losses: despite librarians’ best efforts, physical book loans must have plummeted during lockdown, and many will have sorely missed the community spaces physical libraries offer; as Alison Tarrant of the School Libraries Association puts it (see pp24–25), the whole relationship between librarians and a swathe of students has been damaged, and needs rebuilding.

But there have also been gains, with staff rising heroically to the challenge of lockdown, getting physical books out through book drops, inspiring readers at a distance through staff picks, finding ways to hold storytimes and reading groups online, and upskilling themselves digitally at speed. The passion for reading which gripped the nation during lockdown pushed a surge in e-book and audio borrowing—despite the long tension between publishers and libraries over licensing, which comes up as a repeated bugbear in interviews for this issue—and there are said to be positive signs of people keen to follow this up in physical form too now that libraries are reopening.

Public libraries chronicler Ian Anstice says that the level of cuts he was expecting to the service this year haven’t yet materialised—a good sign. The truth is, the case for libraries as an engine for literacy and reading for pleasure in their communities has never been stronger than now, in a country still reeling from the pandemic. The schoolchildren who have had to deal with such setbacks deserve support with reading and learning; and suffering communities need the solace that reading can bring, and the boost from library resources to get back on their feet. And in a society that has had to live with so much isolation, community spaces are more precious than ever.  

In Scotland, libraries this week sought to put themselves at the heart of the country’s post-pandemic strategy (see p31) and it’s right that they should claim that position. And what better time for our Children’s Laureate Cressida Cowell (see Opinion, p12) to press her case for primary school library support, in her brilliant Life-changing Libraries campaign?

The Library Focus was compiled by  Heloise Wood.