Public libraries in a pandemic year
In the last days of January, as the first two Covid-19 cases were confirmed in the UK, I visited Newcastle City Library. I shared the lift with a tired-looking man hugging a rolled-up sleeping bag. He’d lost his job as a builder, and with that, his home, he told me; his mum had died suddenly and his “head was all over the place”. He was looking for Citizens Advice on the fourth floor.
In times of crisis, it turns out, people often head to their local library.
Together with my colleague Professor Shelley Trower, I spent several months in late 2019 and early 2020 visiting libraries across the UK: in Falmouth, Colliers Wood, Newcastle, Peterborough and Chester. The primary aim of our project, Living Libraries, was to investigate the changes – both positive and negative – that public libraries have gone through, particularly over the last ten years. We set out to understand and communicate something of the multifaceted, responsive nature of contemporary public libraries in the twenty-first century.
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, run by the University of Roehampton, and supported by National Life Stories and five public libraries across the country, Living Libraries has assembled an archive of oral histories focused explicitly on public libraries and the people who use, work in, and run them. We interviewed forty-seven people in total: library assistants and Heads of Service, librarians and volunteers, security and janitorial staff, and other professionals in the sector, as well as library users of all ages. The archive, which will be made available by the British Library in 2021, preserves these voices in perpetuity – all speaking up in various ways for public libraries and their unique, and perhaps unexpectedly complex, societal role.
At Chester’s multi-million pound library and arts centre, Storyhouse, I met Jolyne, a young woman who explained how visiting the library had eased her severe anxiety and agoraphobia: without the library in her life, she said, she’d be missing “an actual life... there would be just a huge hole”.
Alan, a Digital Inclusion specialist who had recently taken on a new, paid role at Newcastle City Library after a long stint as a volunteer, talked me through the need for access to technology that many take for granted.
In Colliers Wood Library, in South West London, I spoke to Baha, who came to the UK as an adult, teaching himself English from the autobiographies of “footballers and pop stars... Arsene Wenger, Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi, George Michael”. As the library’s security guard, he takes on some library assistant duties too, such as reshelving books, switching the computers on in the morning. Growing up in Sudan, without a public library system, Baha is now a staunch advocate for libraries: the government, he explains, “should send someone to public libraries just to listen. The elderly would come and talk to you, the young would come and talk to you. Everyone here has their own story.”
Since my encounter in the lift in Newcastle, back in January, the pandemic has pulled everyone’s year off course. Public libraries shut their doors in March, before gradually re-opening from July, and adapting speedily to the current uncertain present: operating click-and-collect services, limiting browsing, reducing fines, making it easier to join from home. Yet, even as physical library buildings were closed, libraries and library workers continued to provide for their communities. And not only by performing the kind of public service you might anticipate: diligently sharing accurate information about Covid in the early days of the pandemic, moving toddler ‘Rhyme Times’ online from the start of lockdown, and supporting older, vulnerable or marginalised members of their communities with phone calls, e-books and audiobooks. The Dudley Home Library service distributed urgent prescription medicine. Cambridgeshire’s mobile library took hot meals to rough sleepers. In Aberdeenshire and Gateshead, libraries’ 3D printers were repurposed to make visors for Personal Protective Equipment.
The assembled voices of the Living Libraries archive illustrate that libraries are valuable not only for the vital resources they offer – accurate information, printing facilities, the internet – but for other, less tangible reasons too. For community. For comfort. Libraries are warm, safe spaces where everyone is welcome and no one has to pay. At least, that’s the ideal. Interviewees speak of a reality compromised by budget cuts, restructuring and increasing pressures stemming from other public services being closed. Many workers are, as one interviewee put it, “sick and tired of managing decline, and constantly having to find more and more, to the detriment of the service”.
Yet even as Covid-19 exacerbates an already stretched and difficult situation, libraries continue to provide a space for all kinds of people to come together, even briefly, virtually, or at a distance. People take problems of all shapes and sizes to the library – personal, practical, environmental, epistemological – searching for answers, advice or support that they are often unable to access anywhere else. “Libraries are alive”, Jayne from Falmouth Library told us – and they’re essential to our post-pandemic future.
Blog by Dr Sarah Pyke, formerly Impact and Engagement Officer for the AHRC-funded Living Libraries project, University of Roehampton, which ran from 2019 to 2020. To find out more about the project, please visit the Living Libraries project website or search C1868 at the Sound and Moving Image catalogue.