It seems counter-intuitive to shut down library services in a crisis - but that’s exactly what we’ve all had to do. Wholesale library closures were always on the cards but for a couple of very difficult weeks most of us tried to find ways to keep at least a skeleton service open to the public.
That said, slowing the spread of the coronavirus couldn’t be more important - so I make no complaint about the government decision to enforce social distancing by closing libraries and other public places.
I think the desire to share our stories about the madness of the past weeks is a kind of collective therapy. It was one of the most difficult times of my working life. I must say, though, I found the Libraries Connected Basecamp support network invaluable as a way of sharing experiences and insight from other heads of service.
On Monday March 16, I was presenting a Peer Review feedback session in Swindon Libraries - and trying to focus on that as the crisis developed. By midweek I was removing chairs from Warwickshire libraries, extending loan allowances, waiving fines, cancelling activities and making contingency plans to keep five libraries open the following week, and extend the digital offer.
Another challenge was how to deploy and share updates with several hundred staff across the network. The pace of the developing crisis added to the confusion. As soon as plans were made and communicated, they were out of date.
In terms of facilities management, it rapidly became a case of focusing key resources on fewer library buildings and on practical essentials. I can’t tell you how delighted I was to receive a shipment of hand sanitisers and toilet rolls. What a difference a week can make to your professional priorities!
Like many of us, I manage several front-facing services, including museums, arts, one stop shops and registration, as well as libraries. Clearly my duties are not just about process, but about supporting the people involved - and that was never more apparent. Our cleaning staff, hardly noticed under normal circumstances, soon became the heroes of the hour.
On the Friday I received an email from a Warwick hospital doctor that made me very uneasy. He reported “grave public health concerns …. in clear conflict with government advice on social distancing” and said our libraries should close immediately. The day ended with near certainty that this would have to happen, although the government announcement wasn’t made until March 23.
I can’t remember a time when I was pulled in so many directions at once. I was simultaneously considering the welfare of staff, customers and the wider community, and worrying about what all this might mean for my own family. The week certainly stretched my leadership skills. I had to make instant decisions when my instincts and normal practice are to take my time and consult colleagues.
I wanted to capture the moment we closed Stratford -upon-Avon Library as the 16th century building has probably witnessed a few crises in its time. It was a strange feeling, closing buildings without knowing when they will reopen.
On the plus side - if there is one - I got to know the Director of Public Health quite well. And it might not be a bad thing that we were forced to further develop our digital offer at break-neck speed, accelerating the purchase of e-stock. I’m sure other innovations and creativity will follow, and we will no doubt be stronger and more resilient after this crisis, however long it lasts. However, let’s remember we are not completely closed; just delivering services in different ways.
I am now badged as a ‘key worker’ supporting the registration service and am seeing for myself just how deserted the streets are. Stratford is normally packed with visitors so it’s sobering to see it empty. Walking past New Place during my daily exercise, I was reminded of the theory that Shakespeare may have written King Lear while self-isolating in Stratford to escape another epidemic, centuries ago.
Some updates following on from the mad week: I am developing new skills - I’m on the list to be trained for registering deaths. Sadly, this is the one service I manage that will be abnormally busy. Some of my library staff have been redeployed to support the county’s ‘shielding hubs’. I have been tasked with working with two military planners allocated to Warwickshire. We are looking at how the library offer can support some of the most vulnerable members of our community during this emergency.
Our new Schools Library Service headquarters have been requisitioned for the storage and distribution of food for the most vulnerable. It seems really odd seeing our brand new shelves stacked with eggs waiting to be dispatched.
The coronavirus is a crisis of global proportions and nothing could have prepared us for it. It has turned the world upside down and we still have no idea how long it will last, or when a vaccine will be developed to beat it.
One thing I do know is that our wonderful, dedicated and resilient staff will be ready and eager to reopen the doors as soon as it is declared safe to do so. Libraries will have an important role to play in rebuilding social connections for vulnerable customers who have spent months in isolation, and who may be feeling fragile, if not forgotten.
Ayub Khan MBE
Head of Universal Services
Warwickshire County Council