Library staff are no strangers to a challenge. When it was announced in mid-March that library buildings would close for the foreseeable future, our brilliant colleague Gill sprang into action immediately and live streamed her scheduled Storytime via Facebook before leaving the building.
Our stock team set to work straight away, growing our virtual library of eBooks and eAudio. Social media emblazoned with Borrowbox signposting and online joining instructions, we began to field enquiries (from home) to make sure that the reading and learning opportunities we offer were still as accessible as possible. A new Facebook group was even created for ‘Book Chat’ where customers and staff could start conversations about reading habits and lockdown booklists, as well as sharing their recommended titles to celebrate World Book Night – the day that the UK lockdown was announced.
But what about those customers we might struggle to connect with during this time?
Our community engagement team’s mission is always to ensure that our library services are accessible to those who need us the most – their work extends to the housebound, those living with disability, asylum seekers and refugees, families at a disadvantage, young people who are NEET or at risk of being so, the homeless community, and many others. The team work in partnership with volunteers and dozens of local community groups, charities and artists, to democratise creative and cultural opportunities.
So how has this work been able to continue during a major health crisis?
Since Gill’s first foray into the virtual storytelling realm, we’ve delivered an online Storytime every single day at 10.15am, some live, some pre-recorded, from the homes of dedicated library staff. Some of these sessions were themed and embellished to mark celebrations close to our hearts, like Empathy Day, World Refugee Day, Mental Health Awareness Week, Bookstart Week (Pyjamarama) and Trans Pride. In order to keep the magic of books alive for our youngest library members we’ve introduced our pets, donned our best pyjamas, stuck googly eyes to fruit and, at the risk of being upstaged, roped in our own children to help! A regular Storytime at Jubilee library would attract on average around 10-15 parent carers and their pre-schoolers. Online Storytime, Baby Boogie, Story Club and family craft sessions currently average in excess of 1500 views per session.
But of course numbers only ever tell half a story. We’ve also been working with partners like AMAZE, Digital Brighton & Hove, and council colleagues to make sure that this content and these opportunities reach those who may be further marginalised throughout lockdown.
In June we were proud to announce our new Library of Sanctuary status, and we found new ways to celebrate Refugee Week virtually for the first time. Staff and customers share their most cherished books by, and for, refugees. Excitingly, with support from New Writing South and The Book Nook, we launched our first flash fiction competition for all ages. We had a whopping 120 entries, in five different languages, from writers as young as six years old! Our guest judges included children’s author Onjali Q Raúf and we announced the winners earlier this month.
Our next mission is to deliver the annual Summer Reading Challenge online throughout July and August. The challenge (delivered in partnership between libraries and The Reading Agency) is aimed at addressing the reading ‘gap’ that many primary aged children experience over the summer holidays. Due to the differences in children’s lockdown experiences, this gap will be more pronounced than ever this year. The well-documented disadvantage gap between children from different backgrounds will undoubtedly have widened also. Therefore, libraries’ promotion of reading for pleasure and initiatives like the Summer Reading Challenge is more vital than ever.
And it’s not just the kids that will have all the fun! We’ll be launching a Summer Reading Challenge for adults – ‘Brighton & Hove’s Best Summer Reads’ – where customers are encouraged to read and recommend their favourite titles for the season.
We are also working closely with an army of volunteers to get redesign and restart our Home Delivery Service and have taken on 30 new clients, taking us to a total of 110 clients, many of whom are already receiving reading materials from us in a new, rigorously safe way. We’ll keep promoting this service to people who can’t use our e-services and are unable to obtain books otherwise, owing to health conditions, mobility issues, or caring responsibilities.
Behind the scenes, plans have been drawn for the reopening of physical library spaces, with the safety of both library staff and customers being paramount. Meanwhile we’ll continue to deliver against our mission and stand firm in our belief that libraries will always have the power to change lives.