THE WORD Widely read

Arts Council England is spending £151,000 to help public libraries buy e-books and e-audio products to meet  demand during the lockdown, with library membership having gone up 600% in the last month compared with the same period last year. Here Sue Williamson, ACE’s director, libraries, outlines what libraries are doing to help their communities

The Covid-19 crisis has impacted all our lives with restaurants, bars, shops and cultural venues all closing for the foreseeable future. By March 23 all public libraries in England had also reluctantly closed their doors, leaving many people with no immediate access to books, computers and all the other services offered by public libraries.

Conscious of their role in supporting the vulnerable in our society, public libraries have been keen to find ways of continuing to provide a service. They immediately started promoting their digital offer, strengthening information resources and their e-offer and developing live feeds for activities like Read and Rhyme times and Lego and Book Clubs.

Bringing this all together, Libraries Connected, one of our sector support organisations, has worked with qualified librarians to create Libraries From Home, a single digital platform highlighting the best library resources and activity across the country. 

Communities have definitely appreciated this rapid response by libraries. In the last month, library services in England have seen a 600% increase in e-book and audiobook membership and have responded by flexing their budgets to increase the range of e-books and audiobooks they can offer.

To help meet demand, using our role as the national development agency for public libraries we’re allocating £151,000 to Libraries Connected, who will award £1,000 to each local authority for buying e-books and audiobooks. We hope that library users will benefit from increased choice and availability, while publishers, also impacted by the current crisis, will benefit through purchases placed by libraries.

The response from the library sector and our partners, The Reading Agency, The British Library, Book Trust and the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), to the crisis has been exemplary. CILIP, for example, have started their own initiative, the National Shelf Service, offering book recommendations from professional librarians.

Library staff are also playing a vital role in supporting councils to deliver front-facing services. Many have been redeployed into areas including staffing crematoria and registration services, where their customer care skills have proved invaluable. Working at the heart of the community, they have also been running phone lines, helping the most vulnerable with limited digital resources, coordinating volunteers and organising supply chains:

  • Many library services are using their 3D printers to provide PPE. Gateshead Libraries has delivered over 2,000 visors to its local hospital, care homes and adult social services (main image, photographer Ruth Envy); while The Word, in South Tyneside, is working with mixed media artist Laura Jones to create visors for frontline care workers
  • Middlesbrough’s #HelpBoro hub was initially established at the Central Library, with staff answering calls, dropping off shopping and prescriptions, and packing food parcels. They've also produced a twice-daily broadcast of storytelling, including a bedtime story with Tammy, one of their Community Hub librarians and her dog Monty
  • Cambridgeshire Libraries is digitally streaming performances as part of its The Library Presents programme
  • Hampshire Libraries is encouraging people to get into crafting, creating videos and linking to online crafting magazines
  • Inspire in Nottingham has a large online offer which includes online learning for those with disabilities
  • Staff at City of LondonHackney and Lambeth Libraries are keeping in contact with their older, lonely and vulnerable users to check how they are

While no one knows how long the lockdown will continue, it is heartening, and not surprising, that public libraries are at the forefront of supporting communities. Many people are turning to culture and the written word to support them through this crisis which is something that libraries can provide, alongside using their key skills to support community need. And when we emerge on the other side, libraries will re-open again to offer a safe, welcoming and irreplaceable space for everyone in the community.

 ACE has also just published  Reading for Pleasure: An Evidence Review, and analysis commissioned from The Reading Agency that explores motivations in reading and trends in book borrowing.

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