By Isobel Hunter
As the country begins to look ahead to the easing of lockdown, most of us feel a mixture of relief that restrictions may be lifting, and fear as so much about the pandemic’s progression remains unpredictable and unknown. How can we keep ourselves and our families safe while trying to get services and business running again to protect jobs and support people’s welfare? It is an incredibly complex and challenging environment for forward planning.
It is in this context that libraries are now developing their plans for reopening and service recovery, each library having to take tentative steps into uncharted and choppy waters. Libraries Connected is supporting the process by sharing approaches between libraries via our Basecamp networks, and producing a Recovery Toolkit generated by Heads of Service working with members of their teams.
We are also feeding concerns up to DCMS and into the central government machine that is developing guidance, so we can ensure the specific needs of the library environment are being considered. With 174 million library visits last year – libraries are incredibly busy sites where people from all backgrounds meet closely together, so could also be significant sites for virus transmission if the risks are not fully understood and controlled.
Service recovery will not be an instant process of reopening the doors and resuming “normal service”. A useful definition of the complex process is provided in a document by the University of Manchester and Alliance Manchester Business School: https://www.alliancembs.manchester.ac.uk/news/recovering-from-covid-19/
‘Recovery is defined as the process of rebuilding, restoring and rehabilitating society following an emergency, but it is more than simply the replacement of what has been destroyed and the rehabilitation of those affected.’
This shows that the immediate task of reopening the doors will only be the first step in gradually restoring library services and refocusing and repositioning them to meet the new challenges and opportunities of the post-Covid world.
In a discussion hosted by Tortoise Media on 6 May, library workers started to identify some of the societal challenges libraries are well placed to respond to: tackling the digital divide which the pandemic has thrown into sharp relief, helping people back into work and supporting local business recovery, addressing social isolation and bringing communities back together, and providing places for people to mourn together and heal their loss.
However, the immediate task of reopening the doors is complex and daunting as we have never been faced before with a task of this magnitude. As a starting point, nine key principles have been established:
- Staff, user and volunteer safety is paramount. All planning should be based on risk assessments, carried out with staff, unions and health and safety teams. It must take account of public health guidance and be frequently revisited as risks evolve.
- Re-opening will be a phased process based on risk management, availability of staff and resources, and local priorities of need.
- Vulnerable and disadvantaged users may not be able to physically access libraries while the pandemic remains, so thought should be given to meeting their needs through alternative arrangements.
- Planning should anticipate the need to withdraw or suspend services, should public health and government guidance require it, or if there is a shortage of staff and resources.
- The practicalities and priorities for reopening will differ for each library service, and careful planning is needed down to branch level.
- Planning should take into account preparation time for new procedures, spaces and workflows, and for staff training.
- Clear communication is essential to manage public expectations of the service and behaviour within the library buildings.
- The situation is changing fast and detailed advice will also change over time, so any plans should be flexible and take account of updated guidance and context. Once in delivery, revised arrangements should be reviewed regularly.
- Library buildings should reopen with the foundations to reshape into the form that best meets the future needs of society, and their communities, and learn from this period of enforced change without being limited by it.
The Recovery Toolkit will look in detail at all aspects of library operation to identify risks, and suggest mitigation strategies and work arounds, and provide useful checklists and links to relevant guidance and further reading. It will be designed to be deployed flexibly, as every library service will have to tailor planning to its own risk assessments, available resources and local priorities of need.
However, we anticipate that there will be some commonality in the approach libraries take. For example, many libraries are planning appointment systems to provide essential access to IT in a managed environment, are looking at click and collect borrowing rather than browsing in the open library, and exploring ways to offer a home library service to isolated or shielded users.
The full library experience with a wide range of group events and unlimited access to library space may still be some way off, as it will not be easy to manage in a COVID compliant manner. In this context, the enhanced digital offer that libraries have developed will remain important to continue some ways of engaging with users and maintain their relationship with libraries.
We are not the first country entering the choppy waters of recovery, so we are also communicating with library services in Europe and abroad to monitor their experience and the success of the control measures they have implemented.
As with so much about this pandemic, we will get through it by standing together, learning from each other, and by prioritising the safety of our workers and users.