The transformation of the local library

Australia’s libraries rose to the challenge during the COVID-19 lockdown, quickly finding new ways to keep Australians reading and providing access to valued services. From live-streaming story-time to posting items to library members, learn how libraries are adapting to the digital, on-demand age.

Key points

  • Local library services quickly shifted online after the COVID-19 lockdown.
  • From deliveries to streaming, they brought the library to the home.
  • By expanding their reach, they’re able to support communities.

When Australia’s libraries were deemed ‘non-essential services’ and had to close their doors as part of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, they were quickly missed. Many libraries found creative ways to continue providing their community with a much-needed sense of connection, via digital access to resources.

“It was pretty clear how important our library was to the community,” says Ben Footner, Manager of Library Services with the City of Prospect in South Australia. “People were really vocal about how much they missed us while we were shut. So we shifted to online services very quickly. Within a week, my staff here at Prospect were delivering early literacy programs and story time via Facebook streaming.”

These online programs have been a huge success, and Ben’s team plans to expand them. “We’re running a software workshop, for example. The past few months have made us think differently about how we can provide library services to the community – not just online, but also physical services like the home delivery of books.”

Libraries have been building their digital capability for some time.

“If any industry can be held up as an example of how to respond to digital disruption, it’s the library and information sector,” says Sue McKerracher, CEO of the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA). “Over the last 30 years, they have reskilled staff, digitised collections and helped people learn to use computers and the internet safely.”

From audio, eBooks, video games and movies to free Wi-Fi and charging points, libraries have been quick to adapt their services for digital-savvy audiences.

A tangible return to the community

When ALIA commissioned SGS Economics to calculate the benefits of public libraries to communities and to the economy, it found Australian public libraries return $2.90 for every $1 invested.

“With more than 9 million registered users, libraries are uniquely placed to support economic, social and digital inclusion,” notes McKerracher. ALIA’s recent survey of 500 library users found that after book borrowing, social interaction was the biggest loss felt by the community when libraries closed during the COVID-19 lockdown.

With more than 250,000 programs every year, libraries provide support for students, job seekers and local small businesses; and play a vital role in childhood literacy. They are places where people can get together, update their resume, complete online government forms and learn essential digital skills.

“Even while we were closed, we kept our Wi-Fi services available,” says Premal Niranjan, Corporate Manager – Business & Technology with Eastern Regional Library Service in Victoria. “People parked their car next to the library, and worked on laptops outside the library.”

Niranjan says that while a lot of local services were shutting down in March, his team’s response was to explore how they could do more.

“Throughout this period there wasn’t a single day we didn’t have something on offer, even when the government said Australians were not allowed to leave the house. Our staff were very adaptive, and they wanted to do something for the community.”

Delivering a sense of belonging

Libraries have a mandate to provide free access to information to every member of the community. But more than that, they have become a, “welcoming environment that anyone can walk into: no judgement, no need to buy anything to gain access,” according to Footner.

So how do you take that physical connection to people’s homes when the doors are closed?

At Eastern Regional Library Service, the answer was online book delivery. Working with Australia Post, they quickly turned local libraries into fulfilment centres.

“We thought we were going to send out around 1,000 boxes of books a month. But we sent 1,100 boxes a week,” says Niranjan. Initially they sent out books that were already reserved, but then realised not everyone could access the online catalogue. So members could phone in and tell them what they liked to read, and have a box of recommendations sent to their home.

“Because it was a free service, we had a limit of one box per membership per month. But some people said they were happy to pay for more,” says Niranjan. Young families and baby boomers were particularly excited about the service, sending messages of gratitude and photos of excited kids opening their box of books.

“The collection belongs to the community. This was the time people really needed free things to read, watch or listen to while stuck at home – or to help their kids trying to learn at home,” says Sarah Hopkins, Eastern Regional Library Service’s Corporate Manager – Customer Experience. “One new member told us, ‘I’m not really much of a reader, but I’ve discovered the library in lockdown and this has been a real lifesaver for me.’”

Footner’s team at Prospect Library also offered to bring already-reserved books to homes with contactless ‘drop and wave’ delivery. Other SA libraries implemented click and collect and kerbside pick-up models. And across the state, libraries set up a YouTube channel with around 700 story-time sessions and 74 children’s programs.

Sharing resources and ideas

South Australia’s library system is centrally managed rather than being administered by individual councils. Footner says this has significant cost benefits, but also ensures equal access across the state.

“It means we can draw on any library’s collection for our members. No matter where you live, you can access the same resources.”

Australia Post delivers close to 4 million materials to libraries across the state every year, on behalf of SA Public Library Network’s centralised sortation and delivery service. Members simply make a reservation, and it will be distributed to their local library.

“Because we co-operate as a collective, we can also procure in bulk,” Footner adds. This makes everything from eBook subscriptions to library software more cost-effective.

During the crisis, Footner saw SA’s libraries collaborate even more effectively across the vast distances of the state. “In the past we’d talked about organising forums of all the regional and metropolitan library managers. The pandemic encouraged us to quickly adopt the technology to do that online – and now that we are re-opening it’s been a more collaborative process.”

A valued resource for all

Prospect Library saw member numbers continue to grow during the crisis. Like many other libraries, it quickly allowed people to join online to get instant access to all resources. “Because we’ve been forced to deliver a lot of our programs via social media, we’ve expanded awareness by default. People in some demographics have rediscovered their local library and realised just how much we have changed.”

He expects the local library will continue to play a vital role over the coming months, because they are generally valued in times of economic downturn.

“When people don’t have as much disposable income, being able to get access to books for free is really important,” Footner observes.

Having learned so much during this experience, library managers are now thinking about which of the new services they will continue. And with programs already in place to support job seekers with resume writing, completing online Centrelink forms, and access to broader government services, they are ready to support the recovery process.

One thing is clear: the sense of belonging and physical connection the local library provides has never been more important.

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