I have a degree from the Swedish School of Library and Information Science at the University of Borås, Sweden and I have been working in libraries for 13 years; 5 years as a librarian and 8 years as a library director. I am currently the Library Director of Mjolby Public Library, Sweden, and the Chair of IFLA Management & Marketing Section. I have been writing posts for EPALE for a little more than a year.
Most of the Swedish public libraries have remained open during the Coronavirus emergency, including mine, Mjölby Public Library. We have imposed several restrictions in order to protect our staff and customers. We have also been ´forced´ to change the way in which we normally work and to think outside the box. When the crisis is over we will definitely not go back to doing everything as we did before.
Libraries during the coronavirus crisis
Following the publication of the report Demokratins skattkammare – förslag till en nationell biblioteksstrategi [Democracy’s treasure chest – a proposal for a national library strategy], there was a great deal of debate about the role of libraries in a crisis. And now the crisis is here. The coronavirus pandemic has led to libraries, and all other organisations, having to rethink and reset. Public libraries are not unused to adapting their activities to the prevailing societal situation. They were quick to act during the refugee crisis of 2015-2016; new activities were started, opening hours changed and routines developed in order to manage undocumented migrants.
Although the situation in 2015-2016 was entirely different to the situation in 2020, there are still many similarities. Not long after the pandemic was declared, the Bibliotek i Coronakris [Libraries in the coronavirus crisis] Facebook group was created. Here, library staff from across Sweden share their ideas and experiences of outreach activities for our users. “Take away” is a concept that rapidly established itself in Sweden. Anyone who is unable, or does not wish, to visit the library in person, can contact a librarian who will collect the requested media and leave it outside the library for them to collect. In some municipalities, public libraries have gone one step further by delivering the requested media direct to people’s homes. The library in Ödeshög is one of those offering a home delivery service, despite having very few staff.
Digital storytimes, livestream theatre, or why not a digital tea party? E-books, digital magazines or streamed films? There are endless opportunities for digital readers.
Some public libraries in Sweden have closed, but most remain open and have introduced risk-reducing measures. The situation is different in other countries; restaurants, shops, schools and libraries are closed across much of Europe. Restrictions vary from country to country; some have permitted the “take away” concept, while others have prohibited inhabitants from being on the streets at all. All libraries in Estonia were closed, but many were offering take away services. Tallinn Central Library has made its e-book collection available to all Estonian citizens. However, according to Krista Visas at Pärnu Central Library, many people have grown tired of digital formats and now want to access physical media. She also says that closed libraries are a major problem for people who cannot access the internet or who do not have a computer or smartphone at home. Many of the library’s “regulars” are late paying their bills, because they cannot access computers anywhere else. It is times like these when we see how important libraries are to people, she says. Krista also mentions that many children have started to read more. One positive effect of closures in many areas across the rest of society.
A librarian who works at a university library in the west of Scotland tells a similar story. The university is closed and the staff are working from home. Students are trying to complete their studies remotely, but many do not have computers at home and may not have enough data allowance on their mobiles for everything to function optimally. The university has loaned computers to some students, though unfortunately they do not have enough computers for everyone who needs them. Things are particularly difficult for those students who are trying to learn English, says my Scottish colleague. She works on a reading challenge for students who need to learn the language, combining email with Zoom guidance. Zoom is good because you can share screens and have more personal meetings, she believes.
In my own municipality, Mjölby, all our libraries are still open. However, after Easter we introduced more restricted opening hours so that we could temporarily relocate our library staff to care services, where there are significant staff shortages. Going from working in a library to working in a caring profession may seem a huge jump, but both jobs involve working with people.
The library staff are working as assistants in sheltered accommodation or spending the day helping elderly residents with tasks such as cleaning, laundry and running errands, and leisure activities.
One effect of the coronavirus on the residents in Mjölby is that they will now know a great deal more about different ways of reading. Talking books, e-services and large print books – there are many means available to someone who cannot read an ordinary book, for whatever reason, and the library staff naturally take every chance they get to convey this to their new target audiences!
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