Libraries Connected has today written to government ministers to request that public libraries be added to the list of public venues that the government has asked to close.
Over the past few days, individual local authorities have made decisions about their library services based on their own interpretation of government guidance. The fast-moving situation has been difficult to track, but we estimate that approximately 40% of England’s library services are still open to the public.
Libraries can no longer operate safely within the government guidelines on social distancing and other Coronavirus control measures. This situation will worsen if children, who are now off school, begin to use their local libraries to access computers and other learning resources.
The letter was sent to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care; Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; Secretary of State of Housing, Community and Local Government; and the Director of Public Health England.
Full letter to government:
Libraries Connected is the sector-led charity for all public library services in England. We are funded by Arts Council England as a Sector Support Organisation.
We note the guidance issued by the government yesterday, which asks various businesses and venues including museums and galleries to close:
On behalf of the public library sector, we are asking that all public libraries in the UK be added to the published list.
Over the past few days, individual local authorities have made decisions about their library services in response to their own interpretation of government guidance. The fast-moving situation has been hard to track, but we estimate that approximately 60% of England’s library services have now completely closed. One library service shared with us the urgent advice they received from a senior clinical lead in their county:
‘I have grave public health concerns regarding the library service remaining open. I have been informed that several aged patients were attending today reading newspapers together in close proximity. This is in clear conflict with government advice on social distancing. …the mortality associated with Covid-19 spread cannot be overstated. We need to act together, now. Shut the libraries, send your employees home. Now.’
However, the advice to libraries appears to be inconsistent, so many are still operating in a situation that is increasingly confused and alarming for library staff and their communities and puts both groups at risk of infection. This situation will worsen if children, who are not in school, begin to use their local libraries to access computers and other learning resources
Libraries are trusted places which last year welcomed 225 million visits and loaned 175 million books. However, they can no longer operate safely within the government guidelines on social distancing and other Coronavirus control measures. Safety measures that libraries are trying to take are coming under increasing strain due to growing shortages of staff and cleaning supplies.
The very nature of a public library presents serious risks in the current situation, which are very hard (if not impossible) to control. These critical risks include:
- Circulation of books and materials between people, through lending and browsing. This affects staff, volunteers and library users.
- The very wide cross section of the community who use libraries, including significant numbers of people in the high-risk groups (older people, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions).
- The expected influx of large numbers of children next week, due to school closures. They will be impossible to segregate from users in high risk groups – including pregnant women.
- The extreme difficulty in enforcing social distancing by users, due to the nature of the modern library, with open plan spaces and furniture designed for social interaction. Many libraries have reported users rearranging furniture back into close groupings after library staff had spaced it out.
- The extreme difficulty in protecting staff and volunteers, as the nature of their role is to provide face to face support. Many libraries no longer have reception desks, as staff now floor walk for better contact with their users.
Libraries have responded to the crisis with energy and innovation, to ensure their communities have digital and remote services. This includes marketing their existing e-book and e-magazine service, with libraries reporting 25% - 100% spikes in e-membership. They are also developing more innovative ideas including Facebook Storytime, online book clubs, live streaming activities via social media and rotas of phone calls to regular library users.
Although buildings have closed, libraries are determined to ensure vulnerable people in their communities are not isolated. Libraries will also have a vital role to play to help support and reconnect communities once the current crisis ends.
We will appreciate a swift response to this request, as many libraries remain open this weekend.
Isobel Hunter, Chief Executive, Libraries Connected
Mark Freeman, President, Libraries Connected