Is COVID-19 the closing chapter for libraries?

After a year of unprecedented restrictions, forcing the many businesses and organisations to close their doors, do libraries need a rethink on how to survive?

Libraries have always been more than just a place where you borrow books. They are the hub of a community, where clubs meet, children discover the love of reading and adults can indulge in their love of reading. But after what can only be described as tumultuous year, where doors were locked and social meet ups cancelled, are libraries risking losing their place in society?

Due to government restrictions, libraries have had to cut back massively on the services they provide. Once vibrant spaces that at this time of year should be children perusing the shelves for books for the winter reading challenge, they are now empty buildings filled with books and electronic services no one has been allowed to touch in months. While Sheffield remains in Tier 3, only click and collect services are permitted.

Places including BroomhillI Community Library have had to completely change how they provide their services. They are a volunteer led service that is run as a not-for-profit organisation. Since they opened up in August, they have had to reduce their opening house from five days a week to only opening Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursday for only four hours a day. Judith Pitchforth, the chair of trustees for Broomhill and a volunteer session coordinator on Mondays says: “I miss going in. It’s really nice working in the library, you get lots of people coming in to say hello. Both familiar and new faces and I got to help them all. That’s not there at the moment and it’s really weird.”

This is a picture of Broomhill Community Library.
Broomhill Community Library

Many measures are being taken to ensure the safety of both the workers and patrons. Since the first lockdown came into effect in March, all group meetings, activities and events have been. Volunteer shifts have gone down from 10 shifts a week to three. This is to help protect the bubble that is the library as a volunteer that does one shift cannot do another. “Right now, the library is a cold building I have to sit in for four hours every Tuesday” says volunteer coordinator and trustee Sarah Williamson “but I can’t wait for everything to be back to normal.”

As the pandemic has taken hold of the country, one challenge faced is how to ensure users are aware of what services are still available. It seems that even though a huge effort is being made, not too many people seem to know about it. Ms. Pitchforth said: “people think the library is shut. I’m not sure what we can do about that because we have a presence on the internet, signpost at the bottom of the road and a sign at the outside the building letting people know we’re open, letting people know we’re open is an uphill battle.”

But even the bigger libraries have found themselves struggling this year. The Library at the Lightbox was rebuilt fairly recently and opened its doors in July 2019. Despite them paying for advertisement and having an active social media presence, Head of Libraries, Kathryn Green, explained that people just don’t seem to know the massive range of online services people can access. For example, patrons are able to access services such as the practice theory test and hazard perception test for free on their laptops with their library cards, but not too many people take advantage of this.

Photo of a guy standing between two bookshelves
Photo by bantersnaps on Insplash

Another stumbling block that local libraries have issues with is funding. Funding for these crucial services has also that has also decreased at this time. According to a survey of local authorities conducted by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy (CIPFA), spending on libraries fell 2.6% from £744.8m in 2018/19 to £725m in 2019/20.

It is very easy for us to say that the circumstances this year are main reasons why libraries are not getting the resources and traffic they clearly deserve, however even pre-COVID libraries the were not getting the attention and resources that they clearly deserve. In the financing aspect, the CIFA’S annual figures show the number of books borrowed from libraries in the year to March 2020 – before the pandemic closed branches – fell by almost 9m year on year, to 166m. A Gallup poll reveals visits to the library has gone down 3-4% every year this decade and the number of libraries fell from 3,667 down to 3,685 in 2018/19. So clearly COVID isn’t the only culprit that contributes to the demise of libraries.

One of Kathryn Green’s duties is to oversee the performance of local libraries and she says that footfall in all the local branches has definitely gone down over the years. She suspects this be due to a number of entertainment resources available to people. “It used to be that when you got bored you went to the library” Green explains: “nowadays people have kindles and YouTube and all sorts of streaming services.”

Location can also play a huge role in how much traffic a library gets. Broomhill Community is an old Victorian building that is close to a lot of residential homes and is slightly uphill. It is not in a place that, unless you were living or working nearby, you would immediately think of going. Library at the lightbox, on the other hand, is part of the Glass Works town centre redevelopment. It is situated in the heart of the main precinct, surrounded by lots of shops, restaurants, cafes and is in the perfect place for the library. It is convenient enough for people to want to pop in and at least have a look around. Councillor Jenny Platts, spokesperson for Adults and Communities expressed how the decision to build the library at the lightbox in the middle of the town centre was a great decision. She said: “The footfall on the first weekend we opened was absolutely amazing, it was like 5,000 over the span of two days.”

This goes to show that there is an upside, which is that libraries in certain areas still very popular and are too valuable of a service to ever die out. They are constantly finding ways to be innovative and keep up with the times. The number of services available, from the free musical instruments to the changing facilities with disabled access, there is something for everyone.

The library at Broomhill has demonstrated that it is still a much sought-after service. A good number of citizens are willing to give their time to make sure the library is still run. There are approximately 60 volunteers and they offer great services both literary and community wise, including giving free hearing aid batteries to those who wear prescribed hearing aids by the NHS.

What’s more, those running libraries are confident that they will get people back to the library once restrictions are lifted.  Councillor Platt says, “I believe we will get people back again once we get through this initial Tier 3 that we’re in at the moment because they’ll be glad to come and be able to do what they did before in the library”.

A picture of a man and woman smiling between a stack of books
Photo by Josh Felise on Unsplash

So what can we do to ensure libraries don’t die out once lockdown ends? If you have time volunteer at your local library, they are always looking for new volunteers and have a variety of roles. Buy books from libraries, it is one of the ways they get funding to continue the roles. Even showing up to library run events can be a big help.

Libraries have always been a huge staple in society and if there is anything that this isolating period of time has shown us about them, it’s that libraries and the people running them will always do their best to continue to provide us with the amazing service as best as they can. The least we could do is show up to keep them alive.



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