Zoey Dixon pictured below has more than two decades’ worth of librarianship under her belt and was dubbed “one of, if not the, most influential children’s librarians in the country” when she was named a Bookseller Rising Star last year. So it’s no surprise that she used lockdown to boost Lambeth Libraries’ digital offering and developed partnership events which drew in thousands of attendees.
A library manager and development librarian in charge of social media, digital information and online, Dixon had a busy time in lockdown. “The development role expanded because of how we had to move online to deliver our content,” she tells The Bookseller. “I look after e-books and I had to expand the collection to include the jump in use.” Lambeth Libraries added 1,382 e-book and digital audio titles between April and July in 2020, and 1,500 comics and graphic novels. In the same period in 2019, it added only 229 digital titles.
“We expanded the e-book and audio collection, we rejigged the books budgets so more money went to the digital side,” Dixon says. “We added a lot of educational online resources to help schoolchildren, so we worked with Lambeth Council, which was donating laptops to children in need so they could continue their education from home. We produced information booklets for children who weren’t computer-confident.”
A wider reach
Dixon considered how to reach even more users with new capabilities over lockdown. “We introduced a few services in lockdown to expand the offer because we weren’t open to the public. We offered our usual services online—reading groups, story sessions—but added new services such as ‘Ask a Librarian’ and there was an hour where children could ask librarians for help with homework. We started code clubs online, which reached a wider audience—we had to add extra classes because they were so popular and over-subscribed. For the coding club going forward, we will have sessions online and in the library.”
One of the biggest shifts was a partnership with Sheffield Libraries on the LGBT festival earlier this year, the first time Lambeth has joined with another library service. She explains: “It was the first time we’d partnered with another authority. It was a four-month programme and it was great to see people so engaged. Our archives were paired with Sheffield Archives’ to compare queer histories. We started an LGBT reading group, which will continue online-only, because we have people from around the country taking part [and would like it to remain accessible]. It was really successful and upped our profile.
“We had people from Sheffield involved as well as people from Japan and the Caribbean; we had authors such as [Skunk Anansie singer] Skin involved too. We had family members from the Caribbean taking part, and often it was the first time they had spoken to relatives for a while so it was quite emotional. We did a writing competition too, using my and my colleague’s capacity as Carnegie judges [Dixon judged the prize in 2019 and 2020].” Dixon hopes the joint event will be one of many. “People want to replicate that model and do more joined-up working and partnership working,” she says.
She believes that lockdown has seen libraries sharing ideas more—“we’ve done great stuff here but I see other libraries and think, ‘We should do that in Lambeth’”—and the council is now looking to physically partner with other London boroughs. And Dixon’s experience of lockdown event programming has shifted her mindset more permanently. “It’s opened up the doors of what you can deliver,” she says. “It shows you that libraries, as well as being about books and the community space... those spaces can be open. It’s made it more accessible to people with disabilities. It’s made us focus more on how we can make our content more accessible: we add subtitles to all our videos, we record all our events so they can be watched at a later date, and we’re thinking about having signers at our physical events. We want to be accessible by default, rather than being reactive.”
While the service has extended its reach, she is mindful that many of its previous customers may still be struggling to access its online offer. “There’s a greater range of people we’ve engaged with geographically online, but the other side is maybe we’ve lost local people who don’t have online access. That’s why it’s important to have physical libraries. A lot of people can’t afford computers or an internet connection. It’s heartbreaking that we can’t help people all the time.”
Lambeth Libraries, which is still transitioning “gradually” out of lockdown, will keep hybrid events at the heart of its programming. “Some reading groups have started meeting in-person but they’re also on Zoom. It’s about having a hybrid model—you don’t want to lose online relationships because we’ve spent a year building them up. We’ll definitely record events if we can’t stream them live.”
Dixon emphasises that the digital innovation shown by libraries over lockdown needs financial investment to continue effectively. “One issue going forward is capacity. If we’re delivering a hybrid service, do you have capacity and resources for that? People don’t want things that are fuzzy or poor quality,” she says.
Dixon also feels that lockdown exposed problems with the e-book and audiobook borrowing model for libraries. “The licensing model is a bit strange and it would be better if the model was of more benefit to public libraries... allowing simultaneous downloads could have stretched our download figures more. We don’t always get the new bestsellers straight away, or they’re very, very expensive. You’re spending hundreds of pounds to satisfy 100 reserves on one title because [the licensee] only allows you one user on one title. The limitations of the e-book and audiobook service for public libraries in this country over the past year became very apparent. Hopefully more books will be released in these formats—especially audio, which is seeing such a jump.”
The road back
In terms of visitor numbers, Lambeth “still isn’t back to what it was before”, Dixon says, echoing other library services that spoke to The Bookseller. She adds: “We’re still only available by appointment, although that is changing soon. It’s getting busier and the next step will be to reintroduce more activities in the library.”
Ultimately, Dixon sees the service as stronger post-pandemic. “At Lambeth, we are in a good, strong position after lockdown. We are very well regarded in the council and we are in a good position now to be sustainable,” she says. “The reputation of Lambeth Libraries has always been good, but it’s improved so much over lockdown—especially in the council. We also have a closer relationship with different departments.”
One issue she will continue to raise awareness of is the importance of diversity in libraries, and Dixon did a lot of work to make titles by Black authors more visible after Black Lives Matter. “Sadly, there is a big lack of diversity in library workers in England: 97% of library workers identify as white,” she says. “It is a very big issue and it can have an impact on how you deliver a library service. You will have an unconscious bias; you will think if you don’t live in a diverse place that you don’t need diverse books. But you do. I’ve done a lot of work on this in the past year and I’ve been vocal about it.”
Dixon is also looking at how the library can support other parts of the council after lockdown showed how the service caters to so many disadvantaged groups. “We are looking at how we can work better with the homeless section of the council so we can support homeless people. We’re also looking at doing work on literacy and computer literacy so people have access to digital tech and more support.” she adds. “We’re always very, very busy.”
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