A 205% surge in e-book library loans and extra investment in digital resources during the coronavirus crisis will have a long-term effect on public libraries, according to leading figures in the service.
Libraries Connected has said its figures show more than three times as many e-books were being borrowed across libraries in England in the first three weeks of lockdown than before they shut their doors, with a 358% increase in the number of people borrowing e-books over the same period.
Digital audiobooks have seen a smaller boost, up by 60%, which is thought to be due to libraries' more limited stock, although there has been a 217% increase in the number of people borrowing them.
Libraries Connected said one of the most interesting thing about the surge in interest is the 120,000 new members who joined their libraries in the first three weeks of lockdown alone, showing it was not just existing library goers crossing to digital.
Chief executive Isobel Hunter said the lockdown meant the service had “accelerated” the service's move to digital, although she stressed that having library buildings remained crucial.
She said: "Even before the current crisis, libraries were working to improve and expand their digital offer. Clearly the lockdown has accelerated this process and, as always, libraries across the country have quickly adapted their services to meet the needs of their communities. However, this crisis has also highlighted the importance of libraries providing digital access to people who would not otherwise have it. So we are confident that the physical space of libraries will remain just as critical to communities as their online activities.”
Hunter's organisation has been working with publishers including Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins to relax their usual copyright policies during the pandemic. That has allowed initiatives like online story times, which have proved popular for parents and young children. Meanwhile, aggregators RB Digital, Overdrive and Bolinda have been making more titles available.
Individual success stories cited include Kingston, where the service has had 100,000 views of its Facebook storytime in the first week of lockdown, and Lincolnshire Libraries, which has seen an 80% rise in borrowing compared to the same period last year.
Carol Boswarthack, head of Barbican and Community Libraries, said: “It’s great to know that we are as much part of the day as PE with Joe! Online membership and e-book downloads have gone through the roof all over the country. People want to read and that’s fantastic news for the whole industry. The national average increase in new registrations across all local authorities and all aggregators is 633%”
Boswarthack, who has previously called for publishers to relax their licensing for e-book lending, said services were now shifting budget from physical to digital to satisfy the growing need. A £151,000 digital funding pledge from Arts Council England has just been announced and Libraries Connected plans to bid for nearly £5m of additional funding for digital spending from the government, she said.
Nick Poole, c.e.o of CILIP, which has launched its National Shelf Service initiative offering book recommendations from professional librarians, said the challenge now was for library services to retain the new members they had found as restrictions ease and life starts looking more familiar.
He said: “One of the key insights from the disruption caused by Covid-19 is that physical and digital are both equally valid ways of engaging with library services. We must be more ambitious than ‘getting back to normal’. We need to set our sights on a new normal which continues to provide much-needed face-to-face services but which ensures we retain the new audiences that have come to libraries through e-lending.”