Public library services and Coronavirus, GLL a few weeks in

I caught up with Diana Edmonds from GLL to ask a few questions about how things are developing. I would welcome similar such talks with other library chiefs and workers: contact me on ianlibrarian@live.co.uk

What were you proudest of in the first few weeks of the crisis?

I was so proud of the response of the staff. Of the staff who wanted to keep providing home delivery services for vulnerable people, of the staff who continue to provide services in prison libraries, of the staff using mobile library vehicles to deliver urgently needed medication, of the staff who are answering calls in the contact centre. And of the staff who calmly moved the library outside of the walls, providing a profusion of activities within days – rhyme times, story times, ‘kitchen science’ sessions craft activities, podcasts, poetry readings … . I am astonished every day by their creativity and professionalism.

Would you have done anything differently?

It is always easy to be wise after the event – and I think it would have been helpful to have had a clear decision at a national level to close libraries earlier. It was reassuring however to know how much libraries are valued by local Councils and by local communities.

Were there any special challenges faces by being in charge of providing services to several councils?

Libraries are a local service – so the challenge is making sure that services respond to the priorities of local Councils. The Coronavirus outbreak has placed particular challenges – and it is so important that we work to support each Council at this very difficult time.

Are there financial concerns special to being a Trust at this time?

GLL is a large trust: in the Libraries Division alone we manage 5 local authority services – and we are fortunate in that our local authority clients are all continuing to pay the full management fee. I think that we will all face issues about loss of income – but that affects in-house services as well.

What is your favourite thing that any of your library services have done on social media since the crisis began?

They are all good – so that is a really difficult choice. I really did enjoy the Tale of the Three (not-so-little) pigs told on facebook by Chris from Mottingham Library – as those poor piggies grew too large for the family home and had to move on out – which just made me laugh out loud.

What sort of redeployments have staff been put in?

In Wandsworth, they have been supporting the Contact Centre which the Council established early on to take calls from local people during this crisis; in Dudley, they have been delivering urgently needed medication on behalf of a local hospital, and also taking calls for the foodbank. This will continue, I am sure with other authorities as the crisis extends and needs grow.

Are you furloughing any staff?

Since closing our physical library buildings in March, we have moved many services online to provide a continuity of service for customers. We are also maintaining book deliveries for vulnerable people who are housebound. 

While asking to maintain these services, the Royal Borough of Greenwich has also asked us to furlough the majority of workers under the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which guarantees 80% of staff wages. Funding will come from the Council to top up wages for both casual and permanent staff to full pay.

We understand the need to offset costs at this time and are grateful to RBG who share our wish to provide valuable public services which support local communities’ health and wellbeing. The decision has been reached with agreement of RBG, GLL and the union and under the circumstances represents the best outcome for library workers, the library service and local communities during the crisis.”

What are ebook issues like now?

Through the roof! We had seen them rise for the past year, and already had issues equivalent to a large branch in each authority. We had fortunately, been working on a programme to improve our e-services overall, and have good ranges of e-books, e-audio, e-magazines and e-newspapers as well as music downloads.

I hear social media video views are doing well everywhere. How are yours doing?

Since the lockdown, library staff working in the library services managed by GLL have moved online, sharing, on facebook and twitter, the activities which they normally provide in library buildings. From their own kitchens, living rooms  and gardens, they have been producing videos – with rhyme times, rhyme and sign, storytimes and craft sessions for children. For adults, there are more craft sessions, alongside virtual walks, poetry readings and even a podcast. There are lots of other features, too – book reviews, interviews on twitter – but the videos have proved particularly popular, with far more people viewing online than could ever crowd into a library building. Some customers already know the librarians well – and like to see “their” librarian on screen. Indeed some librarians are building an extensive following – Tony from Woolwich, who provides a variety of Rhymetimes, both in English and in English and Japanese, Claire from Mottingham Library who both sings and signs, Carolyn from Battersea with “Kitchen sink science”, Karen from Louth, with crafts from her kitchen and many more …

A library rhyme time in most libraries would not normally accommodate more than 50 children from the local area , together with a parent, a granny or a childminder – and many attract far fewer. Some of our libraries are tiny – and probably could not accommodate more than 10 children, parents and buggies! And yet these videos are attracting average viewings of over 500. Since lockdown, librarians in Bromley, Dudley, Greenwich, Lincolnshire and Wandsworth have produced a total of 212 videos – and these have now been viewed a total over 128,000 times.

The lockdown has indeed produced libraries without walls. The power of social media is enabling people to attend their favourite library activities at a time which suits them – and means they are not restricted to their local library but can pick and choose from libraries across their local area – and indeed can select from a rhyme time or a poetry reading from any library service in the country. We know that social activities in libraries are really important to our customers, with children’s rhyme times, for instance, having real significance for the Mums who attend with their children, as well as for the children themselves. I hope that the experience we have gained during lockdown will mean that this new habit of producing a video of our library activities will stick – and that we will routinely provide these sessions, to be enjoyed and enjoyed again at home.

Do you think that public libraries can reopen before the coronavirus is eradicated?

I really doubt it. We have two groups of people to think about – our staff and our customers. We cannot provide a service if either party is put at risk.

Do you think there are any lessons learnt from this crisis that will stick? / How different do you think your library services will be six months after the crisis than they were a year ago

Yes – I think it will change libraries for ever. It has dramatically accelerated progress in digital provision – but I feel that customers will return to physical libraries in droves when the quarantine is finally lifted.

Please can you send me an autographed photo from Tony at Greenwich Libraries?

I shall have to stand in a queue – at a suitable social distance, of course. Tony Maryon (Star of the Storytime, Master of the multiple language Rhymetime, Warrior of Woolwich Library) is just an amazing librarian. It is a privilege to work with him.