Library lockdown success could threaten physical services, leaders warn

Library lockdown success could threaten physical services, leaders warn

Heads of library services fear the success of digital and remote lending during lockdown could threaten their physical facilities, with the potential for “brutal” cuts on the way, according to a new report.

The Libraries in Lockdown report, published today (13th October) by Libraries Connected, featured responses from 130 service leaders in an online survey, alongside video interviews with a further 20 leaders.

It showed e-book use increased by 146% during the period and the increase has largely been sustained, the report says, with increases in individual services ranging between 38% and 714%.

The report also showed library membership remained stable during lockdown with some services seeing spikes of up to 32% despite the facilities' closure, the report said. Membership to access digital resources increased by 27% with some services more than doubling the number of those signing up. Audiobook checkouts also increased during lockdown by 113%

However, some respondents said the lockdown success “could be viewed, erroneously, as a substitute for a physical offer, or adequate as a definition of a ‘comprehensive and efficient’ library service under the Libraries Act.”

One said: “Some of our directors may say we should shift entirely to e-books, but so many of our residents do still want a physical book. Our success at running an expanded Home Library Service during lockdown is now haunting us. It is clearly being regarded by some as a possible way to replace static libraries”

Another warned: “This has been the most challenging period facing public libraries in living memory. Covid-19 affected the core role of the library, a safe space for people to spend time and reflect. The subsequent shift to a digital offer raised concerns regarding senior directors’ [support for] a changed service that was not as focused on library buildings. This has now impacted the next serious challenge — how to find savings for the next budget cycles when services have already consolidated for years due to austerity.”

The report also noted the scale of e-book lending is still small compared to physical withdrawals and warned with costs “unlikely to be sustainable”.

It stated: “Libraries Connected’s analysis suggests the increased cost of providing this unprecedented access to online lending could exceed current annual spending of £4m on online resources. Heads of library services are therefore concerned that this additional investment may not be sustainable, particularly as budgets come under pressure. As the current licensing model continues to operate restrictively for public libraries, public expectation of availability increases may outstrip supply. This is particularly the case for children’s e-books where traditionally the demand for these has been lower than for adult titles.”

According to the figures, 60% of services managed to continue delivering a home library service and a quarter of library staff were redeployed to other areas of the local pandemic response.

The report claimed reopened libraries had footfall comparable to high street patterns, although recent figures released by Libraries Connected showed footfall for the week ending 13th September was down 80% on the previous year. New models to keep the service going during the pandemic “have resource implications which will entail planning and prioritisation especially if local lockdowns continue for the foreseeable future”, the report said.

One respondent told the survey: “My concern coming out of this is that we are about to enter a brutal round of public finances — I cannot expand due to capacity and organisational reasons, the public expect us to, and I know what's likely to come.”

More than 75% of library services delivered #librariesfromhome events, with 56% increasing their audience for events during lockdown, despite 63% saying they had limited experience in delivering events online.

However, some library services were restricted in their capacity for digital engagement, particularly in the first weeks of lockdown by corporate policies, IT systems and lack of equipment.

The report noted: “Even services with the strongest online offer recognise that the usability and interactivity of the digital public library offer still require huge improvement to match the most popular commercial retail and streaming services.”

Isobel Hunter, c.e.o. of Libraries Connected, said: “Library teams around the country have risen to meet the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. However, this new evidence shows that the leaders who were given the freedom to shape and adapt their services were better able to respond to meet the specific needs of their communities. So we will continue to work closely with library services and decision makers to demonstrate that libraries are essential to delivering an effective recovery from the pandemic.”

Sarah Davidson, c.e.o. of the Carnegie UK Trust, added: "Public libraries have real potential as an enabling, empowering and equalising force in society. We know that engaging with public library services during lockdown has supported people’s wellbeing, helped them feel more connected to their community and helped them stave off boredom and develop new hobbies. For services to be able to deliver to their fullest potential, there is a challenge for local and national governments, sector support bodies and the sector itself to go further to ensure that everyone in the UK has an equal opportunity to experience the impact that the best public library services can deliver.”