Living Knowledge blog

30 August 2021

Libraries (gradually) out of lockdown

While the pandemic has brought adversity, it has brought out the best in people too. The Libraries Under Lockdown episode of our podcast, Anything But Silent, highlighted three examples of this. We heard from the British Library team ensuring crucial documents were delivered to public health services, the Toronto Public Library, who exchanged books for food parcels, and a bridal studio, supported by our Business & IP Centre, which pivoted to ‘something new’ when the crisis hit.

Listen back to the episode here.

Inspired by these compelling stories, we spoke to Pam, Sabina and Jo to find out what happened next.

‘TPL really stepped up to serve the community. It really spoke to our Mission: “Toronto Public Library provides free and equitable access to services which meet the changing needs of Torontonians.” It just so happens that the “changing needs of Torontonians” during a pandemic require different approaches and different thinking to maximize the social infrastructure of public libraries.’

In May 2020 we found Pam Ryan and the Toronto Public Library system packing and delivering food hampers to households in need around the city. By the end of the year, library staff volunteers had distributed over 14,000 hampers to over 42,000 people. They also provided new, free books for children and teenagers of food bank clients – particularly welcome when access to physical library materials was limited.

One of TPL’s branches prepped for food bank service dayOne of TPL’s branches prepped for food bank service day

TPL’s central distribution hub repurposed as a food bank packing facility
TPL’s central distribution hub repurposed as a food bank packing facility

TPL’s involvement in the food bank programme has really cemented their position in the heart of communities. As Pam says in the podcast, ‘the best thing a library can be is open’. And Torontonians clearly agree – there has been a huge increase of people joining TPL as new customers since their gradual reopening from March this year.

‘I used this time, when time felt like it had completely stopped, to fast-track an idea I’d had….’

During the height of the UK’s first lockdown, Sabina Motasem used her expertise, staff and contacts from managing a busy bridal studio to produce scrubs for medical staff. Her Scrub Hub made just under 1400 scrubs for 20 hospitals, care homes and medical centres. Sabina also helped to project manage bulk-cutting thousands of PPE for Imperial Hospital through her production contacts.

Sabina talked in our podcast about her hopes that the world will emerge from Covid kinder, and more sustainable – and her own work on her bridal business has seen this come to fruition. When not running her Scrub Hub, or meeting brides virtually to discuss their wedding plans, Sabina has been working on an ethical ready-to-wear fashion range. ‘Every business will need to evolve and adapt to have sustainability at its heart, and every consumer will be expecting this too from every brand in the future. This pandemic has really raised awareness of the effect our modern lifestyles and fast-fashion are having on our planet and communities.’

A dress in Sabina’s new green collection, which launched in 2020
A dress in Sabina’s new green collection, which launched in 2020

She also started regularly donating specially made tops to several women’s charities and women’s refuges, including Smartworks. ‘For every single dress we make, all of the leftover and off-cut fabrics are being transformed into beautifully-made tops and masks from the beautiful plant silk and the couture silk too. They’re donated to marginalised women and in turn their communities who really need them. Our hope is women will love wearing our dresses, which not only reduces waste, it goes beyond and helps women and their communities too.’

Sabina, photographed by Elliot Wilcox
Sabina, photographed by Elliot Wilcox

‘I think the pandemic has made staff working for the Library appreciate how relevant the British Library is in the current world. Whether we were sat working from our kitchen table or scanning items on site I think we were all much more aware of the service we were providing than before.’

British Library On Demand in Boston Spa enables remote access to parts of the British Library’s collection via digitisation. Staff retrieve the requested collection item, digitise it, and send it out. But in lockdown, this wasn’t possible, so the team had to find new ways of working – particularly when it became clear that many of the documents being requested were being used in COVID-19 research by institutions like the NHS, PHE and NICE.

‘Having to think out of the box gave us an opportunity to provide more material, whether it was a manuscript or an online event, to a far wider audience than might previously have been aware of our services,’ explains Jo Cox, part of the team that kept the service going throughout the lockdowns.

As our physical spaces reopen in London and Yorkshire we’re still open for everyone online, with digital events, resources and access to our collection available wherever you are. Whether via pixels or IRL, we’re so excited to see you.

(And if you’d like to see what podcast host Cleo has been up to, she talks about her day job, alongside Exhibitions team colleague Susan, in this Behind the Scenes blog.)

You can listen to all episodes of Anything But Silent and the follow-up season accompanying our Unfinished Business exhibition at and on all the usual podcast platforms. Listen out for our third series coming in 2022.