Toward the end of March, all public libraries in Australia were required to close as a response to COVID-19, thereby removing access to their physical spaces, print collections, in-house programming, and face-to-face service staff. Recognising the vital and unique role of public libraries as places where communities connect, learn, share and play, staff across the country strove to adapt to the closure of their buildings by innovating, offering new ways to reach their communities.
At a time when forced isolation threatened to keep people apart, public libraries were finding new ways to enter people’s homes to keep alive their connections with the services and resources in the world around them. Innovations included a raft of virtual programs: story times for kids delivered through video channels and social media; online author talks; book clubs and book reviews, craft sessions; and increased access to digital collections of books, movies and audiobooks.
In recognition that not everyone has access to the internet or a device to interact with digital resources, some public libraries created new links with other existing services to ensure their isolated communities had an ongoing relationship with their libraries. By creating partnerships with social organisations delivering food to housebound people, books and magazines were distributed along with meals. Collections of books were also distributed to public housing estates.
Not all public libraries have been able to adapt their services and resources as easily as others. The changes required to stay connected and responsive to the needs of their communities has been a challenge for many library organisations and their staff, and it is unclear if many had plans in place to deal with such a scenario as what we have seen with the COVID-19 closures. The toll on library resources, including the library staff who work so hard to serve their communities, has been significant.
Research project to dig deeper
The Charles Sturt University Libraries Research Group, made up largely of staff from the School of Information Studies as well as the School of Indigenous Australian Studies, has been awarded a COVID-19 research grant to study the responses to the pandemic crisis by public libraries.
Drawing on the expertise of the University’s researchers, and with the support of the Australian Library and Information Association and the Australian Public Library Alliance, the research project will result in a national survey exploring the responses of the public library sector to the closure of Australia’s library buildings to the public.
Recognising the importance of understanding the nature and challenges of responding to an event such as COVID-19 by the public library sector, the Libraries Research Group is enthusiastic about its role in researching these responses. The group’s research will develop an understanding of how public libraries have adapted to closures, what challenges the libraries faced as they put their new practices in place, and how they can be better prepared for future crises effecting their communities.
The School of Information Studies at Charles Sturt University is the Australian market leader in Information Studies education delivery and research, and is proud to be able to offer their expertise through their Libraries Research Group to the Australian public library sector.
The research being undertaken will enable Australian data gathered to be incorporated into other international research efforts, so the responses of Australian public libraries can be compared to our international equivalents.
On Wednesday 20 May NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced libraries would be allowed to re-open in the state – with strict measures in place – from Monday June 1. This change will allow countless residents to once again renew their physical connection with their local library. That many of these people were able to maintain any form of connection at all with their library over the past weeks is greatly to the credit of their hard-working and innovative staff.