How libraries evolved to support government and community needs throughout COVID-19 in the UK and Australia

By Chris Woods

Monday October 26, 2020

Libraries are uniquely placed to tackle challenge exacerbated by COVID-19, like impacts on family and social relationships, health and mental health, and education & employment. Here is a very informative explanation of the role and value of public libraries to the health of communities.

A new report from charitable trust Carnegie UK Trust 2020 examines how, despite lockdowns throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, public library services transformed a complex range of digital and physical offers, tackled social issues exacerbated by the pandemic such a digital exclusion and social isolation, and supported local governments with COVID-19 requirements, such as in customer and essential-worker support.

Released October 14, the report ‘Making a Difference: Libraries, Lockdown and Looking Ahead‘ was conducted by senior policy and development officer Dr Jenny Peachey. The report draws on public polling of 2,196 UK adults, carried out by Savanta ComRes on behalf of the Carnegie UK Trust. Responses to a public library staff survey numbered 1,196, and there were in-depth interviews with 22 heads of library services.

Premium unlocked.

Sample and save 50% on a yearly subscription.

Offer ends 08/12/2020.

Four key messages covered barriers faced by libraries throughout the pandemic, their role in supporting recovery efforts, and what it would take to unleash the full potential of what public library services have to offer heading into the “new normal”.

  1. Public library services had a positive impact on those who engaged with them during lockdown: Around three in 10 people in the UK engaged with public library services during lockdown, accessing digital offers (e-books, e-resources and a wider range of online activities), physical services (welfare and keeping-in-touch calls, home-delivery services, information provision and a handful of buildings-based services) and attempting to tackle digital exclusion through tablet lending and phone support.
  2. Public library staff made a valuable contribution to the COVID-19 response: Staff who were redeployed to support local authority responses drew heavily on customer service skills, learning and support skills, information and knowledge-management skills, and skills relating to adaptability and working in new teams. Adaptability and innovation were also key for staff working within the library service, and enabled new COVID-specific initiatives, for example by creating PPE for local NHS and care home staff by utilising 3D printers in their Makerspaces, or working with local groups and charities to deliver essential services.
  3. Public library services and staff could have delivered much more – but faced barriers in doing so: There were significant gaps in how library staff were able to support their communities during lockdown, the root causes of which include the limitations of a digital mode of delivering services, factors external to the sector (such as finances), and factors internal to the sector (such as organisational cultures).
  4. Public library services have huge potential to support individuals and communities as they navigate the short-, medium- and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic: Issues that public library services can help tackle when moving into the “new normal” include: strengthening communities; employment and financial wellbeing; education; digital inclusion; physical and mental health; knowledge and information; cultural engagement; literacy; and equality, diversity and inclusion.

How UK libraries adapted to lockdowns

The report drills down into how UK libraries rapidly expanded their e-resources — for example, Denbighshire Library Service in Wales drew on its existing YouTube channel to increase the frequency of Welsh rhyme times and used staff living on a farm to integrate key points in the rural calendar (such as the lambing season) within lessons — and, in some cases, developed physical innovations including, but not limited to, examples of:

  • Telephone support, including welfare, keeping in touch and promotion calls: In Somerset, all 500 subscribers to the home library service were contacted. During this, library staff identified a significant proportion of people who were experiencing loneliness and who requested another callback to hear from someone, and small numbers needed signposting to services such as food and medicine collection and delivery, or even more urgent help and support.
  • Home delivery services: Glasgow Libraries worked with Education Services to deliver book bags to 3,000 target or priority families.
  • Information provision: One library service in Wales used social media to promote information from their local authority and other trusted local partners to do a range of things from sharing information from employability partners about jobs and bridges into work schemes; citizens’ advice; drug and alcohol service; domestic abuse; and when recycling is reopening and so forth.
  • Building-based services: Five library buildings in North Ayrshire were set up as health and wellbeing hubs for care home staff and care-at-home staff, providing a bridge between work and home life.

Additionally, some libraries tackled digital exclusion of community members who either did not have access to digital equipment or wifi or who were not technologically literate. In one instance, Powys Library Service entered a partnership with with Accessibility Powys, Supporting People, Scope and housing-support agencies to support digitally-excluded people through a device loan scheme that also addressed connectivity issues via wifi dongles and prepaid cards.

Westminster and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Library Services also offered computer access in closed buildings, with strict health and safety measures in place, for people with no internet access at home. Community members could use PCs for 45 minutes for a restricted range of services, such as contacting family and friends, banking, etc.

Source: ‘Making a Difference: Libraries, Lockdown and Looking Ahead.’

How staff contributed to the COVID-19 response

Almost 1 in 5 (18%) respondents to the staff survey were redeployed during lockdown, with Peachey noting that some of the specialist outreach services implemented by local authorities in lockdown “required or mirrored the core skill set that library staff utilised day-to-day pre-COVID-19.”

“In particular, there was considerable overlap between the customer service skills, learning and support skills, information and knowledge-management skills and adaptability skills that staff previously relied upon to support their communities, and the key skills required in new hubs and centres set up during lockdown.

“Those who were redeployed to roles coordinating or delivering phone lines to support vulnerable people, general customer service phone lines, food or other parcel distribution, care home support, or volunteer management and so forth, drew heavily on their existing skillset to contribute to wider efforts to support communities across the UK during an intense and challenging time.”

For example, Denbighshire County Council in Wales developed a proactive phone call support service for those who were shielding — a process in the UK where vulnerable people went into an equivalent of hard lockdown — and, recognising the skill set of library staff, deployed library managers in the shaping and management of the new service in co-operation with local authority colleagues. This work included adapting the scripts sent from Welsh government, setting up the database, and organising teams.

Libraries with 3D-printers also helped with shortages of critical equipment; following a request from a director of public health for PPE, Gateshead Library Service in England produced 5,000 visors by the time the local authority had received 1,000 from the UK government.

Barriers to utilising library services

Library staff cited a number of gaps in their ability to support communities during lockdown, which, Peachey argues, meant some staff were unable to effectively apply their skills and that public library services were “unable to act as a service of first resort in the way they did before lockdown as a safety net for communities, the lonely or isolated, and the ‘borderline’ or ‘hidden’ vulnerable.”

The limitations of a digital mode of delivering services:

  • Digital exclusion impacts reach: Staff cited concern over reaching low-income and more vulnerable and elderly people missing out on digital services, with various facets to exclusion including: those who could not access tech; those who did not have good internet/connectivity; those who lacked skills or confidence; those who simply didn’t want to use or were unfamiliar with the social media platforms that the library service was relying on at this time (Facebook and Twitter); and those who simply didn’t want to use services or engage online.
  • Digital formats have a negative impact on services’ ability to provide quality interaction and support: These range from the limitations of libraries’ “structured interactions”, such as digital events and activities — digital provision of rhyme and story times for children, physical offerings such as social interaction for early years’ development and parent/carer wellbeing — and “unstructured interactions” associated with libraries’ physical role as a non-judgemental, freely available space, with skilled staff as an outreach service.
  • Services’ inability to provide access to physical resources: On top of the aforementioned social impacts, staff noted that the closure of libraries removed physical, trusted resources such as books and IT equipment.

Factors external to the sector:

  • Finances: While many libraries worked to expand and adapt their services — such as purchasing equipment required for remote working — they were not always provided with additional resources. Additionally, some had to survive on skeleton crews when denied job-retention schemes or substantial earned income through normal activities, while other interviewees anticipate local authorities will make significant budget cuts to address the costs of COVID-19.
  • Differing attitudes to risk within local authorities: Attitudes around whether or not it was possible to run a non-contact home delivery service “often rested on how comfortable councils were in allowing library services to manage risk by supporting staff to work safely in a building, quarantining stock and ensuring non-contact delivery.” This inconsistency applied to digital services as well — some library services were denied permission to use interactive platforms such as Zoom or free broadcasting software.
  • The extent of understanding within a local authority of what the library service does and how it can contribute: For example, a senior manager in Wales noted that rather than their local council announcing what it needed and allowing libraries to nominate staff, it only put out a request for people working full-time who had council-owned laptops. “This was a shame, as all our staff could have done welfare calls as they are so involved in the community.”
  • The extent to which the library service has a voice in local authority structures: The potential for services and staff being recognised and harnessed often depended on relationships between heads of library services and local decision-makers; additionally, some heads of service noted they were excluded from new “command and control” structures at councils, which was “was exacerbated by the fact that libraries were not designated as ‘essential services’” and were, therefore, placed lower on the priority list for delivery of IT support, risk assessment, and reopening of services.

Factors internal to the sector:

  • Consistency and visibility of the library offer during lockdown: Activities and services offered by public library services during lockdown were reportedly developed or delivered on an ad-hoc basis and not offered consistently across the UK; in terms of digital innovations, the hyper-localised nature of online activities raised questions about visibility and reach.
  • Organisational culture: Where senior managers ensured staff at all levels had the opportunity and ability to shape the library service, staff felt an advantage in terms of rapidly developing new services; conversely, where inclusive approaches were absent, staff reported that working culture negatively impacted the quality and impact of services delivered as well as staff morale and wellbeing.
  • Partnerships: Some libraries reported expanding partnerships with other organisations during lockdown. For example, one service in Scotland capitalised on an existing partnership with the Red Cross to deliver library books via the organisation’s hot meals delivery service for vulnerable older people.
  • Effective communication and engagement with the public: Respondents overall found their services sought to understand what their community needed during lockdown — the average score for effort made came to 7.2/10 — and pointed to how their service worked with the community or with community partners, volunteer and community groups or the council to understand what was needed in their communities. Those who were less sure reflected that it was hard to get a sense of what people really want over the phone, while others noted that uptake of services at this time was not properly measured.
  • Preparedness and contingency planning: Heads of service identified the pre-COVID-19 environment (such as areas already experiencing financial hardship), quality of business continuity plans, and time spent planning at the start of the pandemic as impacting library services’ ability to adapt during lockdown or in relation to reopening.
  • Digital skills: While 93% of survey respondents reported they had used ICT skill both prior to lockdown and during lockdown, 60% did not have prior experience in drawing on communication and facilitation skills, with only 31% developing it throughout lockdown.


The potential of libraries throughout and post-COVID

Peachey argues libraries are uniquely placed to tackle challenge exacerbated by COVID-19, including impacts on family and social relationships; health and mental health; education, employment and the economy; economic fault-lines; and emergency services.

Here, she juxtaposes the most commonly-mentioned areas that staff saw themselves and their service as contributing to (“strengthening communities”) with challenges the UK is now facing within that area (“loneliness and isolation”) and ways in which public library services were already supporting — and can continue to support — people in relation to that area (“community groups, such as: reading, knit and natter, early years or reminiscence groups; coffee mornings; outreach services to disadvantaged families, linguistic minorities, or care homes; activities and services for those with special or additional needs”).

These areas include:

  • Employment and financial wellbeing: With unemployment expected to rise significantly by the end of 2020 due to the economic crisis triggered by COVID-19, libraries are helping jobseekers find opportunities and prepare themselves for interview (providing support in job-searching online, CV writing, basic adult and community courses and training, job clubs, access to computers and resources to aid the drafting of tailored job applications) or, in some cases, providing advice and support for the development of small businesses (support around protecting intellectual property).
  • Education: School provision varied significantly during lockdown, with children’s opportunity to learn being unequally impacted; public library services provide access to a range of IT and information resources and learning activities, including school-linked services such as homework clubs, STEM and code clubs, and Makerspaces.
  • Digital inclusion: Lockdown highlighted the fact that 7 million people in the UK do not have access to the internet at home and 9 million cannot use the internet without help; public library services support digital inclusion through providing access to tech, support with skills development, and by building motivation and confidence to engage online.
  • Physical and mental health: Per the now-obvious impact of COVID-19 on mental and physical health, library services provide a range of activities and groups that support long-term social or physical conditions and/or who are lonely or isolated; for example, many public library services work in partnership with organisations such as Macmillan, Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia UK to provide support for health conditions.
  • Knowledge and information: Fake news, fake images and fake numbers have proliferated during COVID-19; libraries, however, are services that for many people are the trusted starting point for finding general and local information.

Other examples cover the role libraries play in cultural engagement, literacy, and equality, diversity and inclusion, all of which have been negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Peachey offers eight action items based on her findings:

  1. Deliver a sustainable financial settlement: Citing both increased expenditure due to lockdowns and fears of local governments’ looming “financial black hole”, Peachey proposes an option whereby sector bodies explore ways of diversifying funding for public library services from a range of public bodies. “Library services  contribute to the outcomes being pursued by many government departments and agencies — including health, education, culture and employment. There is an argument that this cross-policy delivery should be matched by cross-policy funding, with public libraries being provided with funds from a range of government departments or public bodies, alongside local government investment.”
  2. Strengthen status and voice in local authority structures: “The challenge for council leaders and officers is to engage with library heads of service to assess how public library services contribute across the aims and priorities of the local authority and how public library services could work more closely with other services to deliver maximum benefit to communities in a cost-effective way”.
  3. Value and invest in skilled and confident staff: Some possible ways forward for sector support organisations could include developing nationally co-ordinated workforce development programs, working with higher education departments to ensure trainees entering the sector have the appropriate skill set, and working with higher education, freelancers and other organisations to support appropriate skills-development opportunities for those working in the sector at present.
  4. Build a positive organisational culture that supports leadership at all levels: Peachey proposes recognising and supporting the following responsibilities as shared responsibilities in order to create the aforementioned benefits of inclusive leadership structures: leadership; strategic thinking, planning and evaluation; innovative thinking; advocacy and demonstrating value; and partnership development.
  5. Recognise the digital future is here and deliver a high-quality blended service: Citing advantages and disadvantages of digital and physical services, Peachey calls on heads of service to “set out a framework or standard for blended delivery; supporting best practice and learning around innovation in service delivery; and, supporting the work conducted on the single digital presence to capitalise on the learning evolved during lockdown.”
  6. Resolve the longstanding, complex issues around e-books, namely challenges in relation to choice, cost and licensing conditions surrounding the UK’s current “e-lending eco-system”.
  7. Balance coherent and consistent national offers with the power of the regional and the appeal and benefits of the hyperlocal: Proposed areas of consideration include supporting the development of nationally organised and funded infrastructure and creative programs; revising nationally co-ordinated monitoring and evaluation in relation to a hybrid service; sharing guidelines and best practice on the delivery of new or emerging services; exploring the potential of the region; setting out the pros and cons of certain functions sitting at national, regional, local and hyperlocal levels; and exploring the potential of a national body to co-ordinate e-book licensing and lending.
  8. Advocate effectively and powerfully: Peachey argues there is a real need for effective advocacy to shift outdated perceptions of what public library services are, including among decision-makers. “A key challenge for the government departments that oversee public library services, sector support organisations and heads of service is to identify the levers for change and build relationships with the change makers that are not currently within their purview. Ensuing challenges may include demonstrating the way in which public library services are key anchor institutions and ensuring public library services are represented on a range of policy agendas and relevant working groups.”

How does Australia compare

While the UK has experienced a much more severe pandemic than Australia, the report demonstrates a strong overlap with the local sector’s experience; according to the Australian Library and Information Association’s (ALIA) April 30 interim report, ‘COVID-19 and Australian public libraries‘, Australian libraries implemented similar digital and physical innovations — for example, Libraries SA reports that some libraries provided outreach support to vulnerable community members, while State Library of Western Australia set up a special room with three computers that, under controlled conditions, allowed people experiencing homelessness to access the internet — and faced comparable financial challenges (such as local governments’ exclusion from JobKeeper).

Similarly, the first 500 responses to ALIA’s nationwide survey of library users in May found that, after book borrowing, social interaction has been the biggest loss felt; while 87% of respondents missed being able to borrow print books, 44% missed having expert, friendly help from library staff; 40% missed being around other people; 36% missed participating in events and activities for adults, and 20% missed taking part in storytimes with other families.

The report also points to an area in which Australian libraries were arguably world-leaders. ‘Books Create Australia’, a collaboration between ALIA and the Australian Booksellers Association, the Australian Publishers Association and the Australian Society of Authors announced on March 18 an industry agreement for virtual storytimes that enabled libraries to record or livestream their storytimes throughout the pandemic.

On whether any Australian governments possibly undervalued the role of libraries throughout the pandemic, ALI CEO Sue McKerracher tells The Mandarin that there was a tendency back when governments were prioritising essential and non-essential services in March to put libraries in the non-essential bracket. However, she notes that the experience of closures highlighted the sector’s role in bridging digital exclusions, which “was just one way that governments woke up to the fact that actually, libraries are essential services.”

“So when the Prime Minister announced the roadmap back following COVID recovery, actually, the libraries were in there as part of the early stages of recovering. So I think what happened was, yeah, there was a bit of confusion at the start about whether libraries for essential or non essential, but by the time we got through to that July, August, and there was a clear understanding their library essential service for many of our community.”

Looking at a post-COVID-19 Australia, McKerracher emphasises that libraries are well positioned to actively support and facilitate workforce development and training, specifically by working with higher education and government agencies to grow skills and confidence — such as through guided access to online and real world training — and providing service access points for federal government workforce services as well as resources for jobseekers.

And while she is confident that, after the pandemic emphasised the essential nature of libraries, councils will not necessarily be looking to pull funding, McKerracher cites two challenges going forward: 1) bringing casual local government workers back after thousands were stood down in April — “because casual workers enable us to open longer hours, peaks and troughs in demand” — and 2) seeing whether successful expansion of home delivery services can be maintained.

“What we’d like to do is explore whether home delivery could continue to be a service we offer. But of course adding services, when budget may well be capped or where there’s no extra money…

“So how do we do additional services, which are quite expensive to run, but clearly there is a demand for it? So I think we’ll be talking to councils, and other levels of government about how we fund this.”

Source: ‘COVID-19 and Australian public libraries: interim report 30 April.’

Subscribe today and save $220 on an annual subscription

Because we are reader funded, we’d love you to join Mandarin Premium. Without your support, we simply can’t do what we do. And we’re looking forward to doing a whole lot more in 2021.

If you subscribe now, you can save 50% ($220) on an annual subscription*. Just enter promo code PREMIUM50 when you subscribe.

*Offer ends 08/12/2020.


Chris Johnson
Managing Editor

Subscribe today
About the author
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

The essential resource for effective public sector leaders