Entering national lockdown in March 2020 took us into unprecedented territory. We were faced with a set of circumstances that had an impact on us all personally as well as professionally. Libraries had to invent a new service, find new ways to engage with those who needed us the most, new ways to tell stories and to support communities. It felt that, almost overnight, everything shifted to digital delivery. The library service saw a huge explosion in usage of our online offer: downloadable books, audio, and magazines and newspapers.
Staff rose to the challenge of digitally upskilling, embracing creating content for our social media platforms and replacing our events programme with video content, ranging from nature walks to breadmaking to storytimes and craft activities. All filmed, edited and broadcast from their homes and gardens.
Responding to a need to support those not online, staff also made more than 7,000 wellbeing phone calls to elderly and vulnerable library members during the first lockdown. This service morphed into a support service for those struggling to get online, so in addition to providing a befriending service we took referrals and direct contacts for people who needed basic IT help, assistance using library online resources, or information on or signposting to other services.
We were driven by a desire to respond to local and national circumstance: furlough was coming to an end and several sizeable employers within Somerset were at risk of closure, which meant significant numbers of local people were in danger of becoming unemployed. This is the background from which our device-lending scheme emerged. We established a pilot scheme with a small number of devices, targeting our support to those coming out of jobs in hospitality or manufacturing, those who may have needed additional digital skills development to job search, interview online etc.
Data poverty and broadband connectivity are key issues across Somerset, not just in the more rurally isolated areas but in deprived urban areas too. It was important that our devices were data-enabled: each comes with an unlimited data SIM card. If we were to expect borrowers to rely on wi-fi to use the device, we would not reach those with the greatest need.
Strong support for the project came from Jobcentre Plus, Citizen’s Advice, Somerset’s district councils, the voluntary sector and other employment support agencies. Consultation with these partners helped us identify the initial locations for our devices. It was key that they weren’t just put in our six busiest libraries but rather where they would be most needed: areas of high deprivation, or where significant local employers were at risk.
This joined-up approach made the scheme a success. Referrals were two-way, with agencies referring people to the library and library staff able to refer people to the appropriate agency for additional support.
We launched the tablet-lending scheme with 25 iPads in six libraries in October, providing borrowers with the device, unlimited data, and wrap-around support from a combination of library staff and Positive People, a local employment support agency. Thus anybody who borrowed a device could access one-to-one support to look for work in person, where possible, or via the phone or internet.
Feedback from those who used the scheme was excellent. Testimonials said it saved commuting time to the library, granting people time to find jobs and access support for their mental health. One user told us: “I will be returning the device later today as I have found a job. I honestly could not have achieved this without your help.”
We measure the success of the scheme in several ways: the number of devices loaned, customer feedback and postcode analysis. This latter data shows us that most people who borrowed a device lived in an area that ranked higher for deprivation across the multiple deprivation index (MDI) indicators for employment and skills. Though, of course, it’s worth reflecting that those areas of need are much more widespread post-pandemic.
We have expanded the scheme now to well over 100 devices, with the aim to have a device available to borrow in every library in the county in the future. The scheme expansion has been made possible due to external funding.
Our next steps are to evolve this offer into an outreach model providing local “hot spot” support: setting up a help point at a local business, enabling library staff and employment advisors to lend devices or provide information to people on their lunch break or on their way into work. This links into static provision in libraries, where we can offer internet access, opportunities to participate in both virtual or physical classrooms, and remote or in-person access to advisors.
Now more than ever, libraries have a role in supporting and building community resilience, in being flexible and adaptable in identifying and responding to need as communities emerge from the pandemic. Somerset’s device lending scheme shows how, in one small way, developing an idea and developing it in partnership can have a real impact on individuals and on communities.
David Hayden is the service manager of development at Somerset Libraries