Librarians flourish in lockdown with roll out of digital community activities

Librarians flourish in lockdown with roll out of digital community activities

The government, local authorities and heads of schools have recognised the value of librarians since the first lockdown, according to representatives of library associations. Some warn, however, about school librarians being reassigned to new tasks. 

“School librarians have in this lockdown been named as key workers, so schools are allowed to have librarians in,” said Caroline Roche, chair of the School Libraries Group. “In the first lockdown we weren’t named as essential, so a lot of schools furloughed or moved them. There has been a change, probably because of all the work librarians did and which heads saw they could do.”

Across the country, school librarians have run reading groups, hosted library lessons through online portals such as Microsoft Teams, supported reading development and literacy, and found e-resources for teachers, among other things. Many schools have seen an increase in the number of students who are borrowing books, according to Barbara Band, who is vice-chair of the Great School Libraries Campaign and the former Chartered Institute of Library & Information Professionals president. “There have been students who wouldn’t normally borrow books really engaging online,” she said.

Similarly, public libraries are playing an important role in keeping children connected with their communities. Sarah Mears, programme manager of Libraries Connected, said one of the “most powerful” ways of keeping in touch is the regular rhyme times and storytime sessions being run by libraries online, as well as events such as Lego clubs and craft groups. “We see comments on Facebook from people saying how much they are missing being in the library, but this way [with online events] they still have that contact,” she said. 

Mears’ Libraries Connected colleague Marsha Lowe said the government “really recognises” the importance of libraries this time around. “It was clear in March that libraries should close; we knew so little about the pandemic. But the situation is different now. The government really recognises the role libraries play in communities. If you shut that down, it has a massive impact on communities.”

Chris Myhill, chair of the Association of Senior Children’s & Education Librarians (Ascel), said the response to the crisis has been “phenomenal”, with librarians undertaking promotions of e-books and audio services, and several offering “lucky dip” or “grab and go” bags via a click and collect service, whereby librarians put together a selection of books for people to pick up and take home. She added: “We’ve had lots of feedback from library customers [saying] they have enjoyed having books chosen for them by someone else. As far as reader development principles go, it’s fantastic. They are being presented with things they wouldn’t choose themselves.”

Other examples of services offered include Art Diamonds (a creative arts programme for older people), weekly heritage talks, poetry clubs, online resources for home learning, and library podcasts. And librarians went beyond their job description by making visors for care homes, providing care packages for children at home, making welfare calls to older residents and delivering the Department for Education’s Food and Activity programme, providing lunches and activity packs for families who normally receive free school lunches, Myhill said. 

Nina Simon is the schools libraries service manager in Redbridge, working for the council to provide library services in schools across the borough. She was furloughed during the first lockdown, but was brought back in August after several schools complained. “They really missed the work I was doing when I wasn’t around,” she said, and pointed out that school library services did everything from running book awards to providing resources on mental health, and creating study spaces for pupils who had been excluded from schools. 

Not all librarians feel totally appreciated for what they do, however, and in schools there are concerns that librarians are being reassigned to other jobs. “School librarians were taken on to do a job, and even though they can still do that job, they are being given all sorts of tasks that a teaching assistant would normally do,” said Band. “If that happened to me, I would think, ‘I’ve had enough of this’.”

Many have been given the job of conducting lateral testing for Covid-19, and some haven’t done the job they were hired to do for a year, said Roche. 

Overall, though, everyone who spoke to The Bookseller was keen to stress the positive work librarians have done, and are continuing to do, during the Covid-19 crisis. As Myhill said: “There has been a real acknowledgement of the benefits of libraries, and the benefits of books and reading for mental health and wellbeing. It’s such a fantastic escape for people.”