Libraries have always been a place of refuge – somewhere I could go to wander the shelves and be transported to another place for a while. During Covid-19, has their role as a place where community can gather changed?
Returning to the library a few weeks ago (after their closure due to Covid-19) was like a welcome to a familiar place. Libraries had always been a fun place to spend time without really having a goal in mind. Sometimes I’d wander in and browse the shelves and walk out after an hour without actually borrowing anything. But I’d leave full of ideas and possible stories.
Libraries are not just about borrowing books, although that is an important service that is in as much demand as ever. According to the World Cities Culture Forum, the top five cities for borrowing books are Tokyo (borrowing a total of nearly 112 million books in 2017), Shanghai, New York, Hong Kong and Los Angles. Although relatively large cities top the list, quantity of books borrowed is just one indicator of their relevance.
Dallas Public Library in Texas has a Homeless Engagement Initiative, which has engaged more than 4,000 members of the homeless community in library programs, mentorship and personalised assistance services. The New York Public Library also thought carefully about the needs of the community and started a clothes-borrowing service for members, which loans formal clothes and accessories for job interviews for up to three weeks.
Libraries provide resources for those who don’t have them at home, but even more than that, they are a place of learning and getting together – from renting out meeting rooms for community groups, to providing classes, book clubs or just a place to chat. Some libraries encourage innovation, especially in new technologies and maker studios. Montserrat Abelló Public Library in Barcelona, for example, shares the building with Les Corts Fab Atheneaum, a leading facility in digital creation and training relating to new technologies, particularly 3D digital printing.
But has this changed in the context of Covid-19? With shut doors it would seem that libraries can’t do their important work as community hubs. However, like so many other sectors, many have found a way to operate in this ‘new normal’. Melbourne’s Yarra Plenty regional libraries, for example, have found a way to stay connected with their community by calling all their senior members to see if they need any help borrowing remotely now that the physical spaces are closed. Many were impressed with the feeling of connection and care the staff expressed, with some chats lasting up to half an hour. As Lisa Dempster, Yarra Plenty’s executive manager of public participation, observed, “One of the hardest things about lockdown was people being separated from their community.”
One library user noted that she rediscovered libraries in lockdown. “I was stuck at home, not currently working and feeling pretty low and looking for glimpses of positivity and hope. And I thought maybe the local library has something that can help.” Sometimes this connection made between people in library spaces can make a big difference, such as the social workers who reached out to people who might have been homeless or victims of domestic violence, something that Yarra Plenty has continued during lockdown.
But these services can’t be taken for granted. In 2018 poet Lisa Gorton noticed that poetry books were disappearing from the shelves, including rare editions that couldn’t be easily bought again. Often books are discarded “due to damage, poor physical condition, inaccurate factual information or lack of usage”. Only those “in high demand or of enduring interest” make the cut. But even if something is not constantly being borrowed should it be removed from the shelves? What impact would this have on young readers wandering the shelves looking for unusual discoveries? Maybe it’s time to pop down to the local library and borrow out our favourite books, they might not be there forever.