Your libraries are open
Libraries are good in a crisis. The New Bodleian Library in Oxford was built in the late 1930s. During the Second World War, its deep storage basements accommodated both cultural treasures from London institutions and a major blood bank to support the Allied campaign in northern Europe. The Bodleian also housed a team from Admiralty Intelligence (headed by Ian Fleming, to help plan Operation Overlord), and library staff, working closely with their neighbours, Blackwell’s Bookshop, sent books to British POWs overseas.
Contrary to some assumptions, libraries have not closed during the current pandemic. The entrenched view of libraries is that they are just physical places where communities come together to access knowledge. Covid-19 has upended these assumptions. The question, for all libraries, as the crisis was unfolding in March, was whether we would support our communities better by staying open and continuing to provide the services that need the physical spaces to operate, or by closing, as libraries are busy places where the disease could easily spread, affecting frontline library staff as well as users.
The Bodleian is a busy research library (spread over 28 locations) which gets more than five thousand readers on an average day. We closed our doors to them on 17 March. Within a few days all the other research libraries in the country had done the same. It took slightly longer for most public libraries to close. The national lockdown, announced on 23 March, enabled the last libraries to shut their physical doors, much to the relief of the librarians, who had already turned their attention to shifting their work online.
Libraries have been open online for their communities throughout the pandemic. This point cannot be emphasised strongly enough. Libraries did not close. Over the past thirty years libraries have expanded their collections, services and ways of working into the digital realm, and this has enabled them to continue to support their communities during the lockdown. Arts Council England has offered £1000 to each local authority to buy more content, but this token gesture will cover only a handful of ebooks. Some mobile services have continued, and some libraries have ‘keep in touch’ phone calls with isolated patrons.
Many public library staff have had to be redeployed to other services by local authorities struggling to cope after years of austerity-driven cuts, highlighting other problems in the gaps exposed by the pandemic. In November 2018, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights pointed out that ‘public libraries are on the frontline of helping the digitally excluded and digitally illiterate who wish to claim their right to Universal Credit.’ Who has been providing that support during lockdown? As public libraries slowly reopen to walk-in users, some hope for those who depend on them is returning.
Staff in medical libraries, including my colleagues at the Bodleian, have been sourcing medical information, participating in rapid reviews, and co-authoring scientific papers on face coverings and therapeutic trials. In Ireland some library staff are involved in contact tracing. Librarians’ research skills are particularly useful in the scientific and public health response.
Online reference and ‘live chat’ facilities have been vital in supporting students and members of the public who felt stranded by the rapid lockdown. We released recordings of the background noise in three of the Bodleian reading rooms, downloaded by phenomenal numbers of people needing help in concentrating at kitchen tables the world over. Bristol University Library has expanded its wellbeing resources. At Cambridge University Library and many other institutions they have begun to build collections of digital and printed materials related to the pandemic as an important archival witness to these extraordinary times. Libraries are for the future.
Many larger libraries have been able to bring to the fore the work they have been doing to digitise their collections, from ancient papyri to political campaign posters. Many, like Edinburgh University Library, provide guided tours through their digitised treasures. Some institutions have been able to use the lockdown to work through backlogs of material waiting for processing: at the Bodleian the conversion of our manuscripts catalogue into online form – a massive task, long anticipated – is moving forward in giant leaps. The National Archives have taken the paywall down from their massive online offering, and many university presses have done the same with their rich backlists. What will the reaction be when the paywalls go back up?
The temporary relaxation of some restrictions by the Copyright Licensing Agency has helped, but the crisis exposes a range of problems with the current law around copyright. Since 1662, publishers have been required to deposit a copy of every book they publish with the British Library and other ‘legal deposit’ libraries (including the Bodleian). In 2013, legal deposit regulations expanded to include digital publications. Vast numbers of these books are inaccessible to the general public – the people funding the collection, who the collection has been created to benefit.
In New Zealand the government sees investing in libraries and archives as part of the package of measures to protect their society. In May, the UK government announced a Cultural Renewal Taskforce chaired by Neil Mendoza (the provost of Oriel College, Oxford). Unfortunately, none of the taskforce has significant or compelling experience of libraries or archives, and the press release didn’t mention them. The library sector has been allocated a working group, but archives are once again left unrepresented. A missed opportunity from the culture minister, who as we begin to reopen our physical spaces (the British Library on 23 July, the Bodleian shortly afterwards) must recognise the positive role that libraries and archives have been playing during the pandemic, and the transformative role that they can play in supporting their communities as we emerge from it.