The future of libraries in a post-Covid world

Barbara Band, School Library Consultant, reflects on what it means for the future of school libraries in a post-Covid world. Sparked by ideas from an IFLA webinar, she considers safety and technology in library spaces, evidence-based librarianship and the value of school libraries.

Librarians and information professionals often work within rapidly changing environments. For me, as a school librarian, changes mean varying community demographics each year, a constant stream of new resources that need to be considered for inclusion in collections, education initiatives and curriculum changes, and advances in technology. Thus, it’s important for me to maintain my CPD (Continued Professional Development) and not just within the school library world. It is surprising how much overlap there is among sectors—school libraries, further and higher education, health libraries and public libraries. When I talk to people about professional development, I advise them to look outside their sector for ideas and inspiration as it’s too easy to get stuck in a bit of a loop if you just focus on your own area.

Since March 2020 there have been a huge number of online webinars available, many of them free. One that attracted my interest was the mid-term webinar presented by IFLA’s Literacy and Reading + Public Libraries Professional Units titled “The Future of Libraries in a Post Covid World.” The session was facilitated by Erik Boekesteijn, senior advisor at the National Library of the Netherlands. He was in conversation with Margaret Allen, CEO and State Librarian at the State Library of South Australia; Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian of the British library; Liz McGettigan, Director of Digital Library Experiences at Solus UK; and Gene Tan, Assistant CE of the National Library Board, Singapore. They focused on public libraries, looking at what was happening around the world as countries managed different post-Covid situations. As always, I found myself thinking of how these aspects related to school libraries and whether there was anything that we, as a profession, could take from them.

Safety and Technology in Library Spaces

One of the first points discussed was the issue of safety. Although libraries were beginning to open, some people were hesitant about using these public spaces. Trust in libraries needed to be generated all over again. Schools in the UK have never been closed. They have remained open either with a smaller number of key workers and vulnerable students or with their full cohort split into bubbles. However, school libraries certainly have been, and many still are, closed. It’s not only trust that will need to be engendered but also knowledge of the library resources and services, and how these can help students. In most schools this is imparted via library lessons, which are currently not happening, so the challenge will be how to reach out to students.

Another theme that was raised throughout the webinar was technology. Going forward, libraries need to deliver a hybrid model of in-person and digital services, building on the positives from last year, and working with communities to ensure they’re aware of what libraries can offer and that libraries are still relevant. This means being attuned to what your community needs. Post-Covid this may require an audit to see if these have now changed.

UK school librarians were very quick to move online last March, setting up collaborative spaces, providing digital services and working with teaching staff. Case studies of what they achieved can be found on the Great School Libraries website and I know that some are planning on continuing with these initiatives. However, it was noted that equitable access to digital devices remains a problem, as does the lack of digital and information skills. Certainly, if there is going to be an increase in online teaching and activities, then it is important that students are taught these skills. This is an area where the school librarian can bring expertise and impact. One comment made in the webinar was that information literacy is always what librarians have been about and we need to be more assertive about this. As a school librarian, I agree!

What was also mentioned, when considering library spaces, was how people have been desperate to get back into their libraries to make physical and social connections, and how librarians have been unable to help their communities. I can totally empathise with this. I’ve missed the simple pleasure of spending an hour or so browsing the shelves in my local library.

What is particularly interesting about missing physical libraries was that it raised the fact that a library isn’t just one thing; it is a combination of collection, space and staff. Whilst technology can free up staff from certain tasks, it cannot replace them.

Evidence-based Approaches to Libraries

Conversation also centred on the fact that we aren’t very good at developing an evidence-base around the work of libraries, and that we need to speak in the right language to the people with the power and the money—mention was made of the BL Business & IP Centre network and the economic impact analysis “Democratising Entrepreneurship” that showed for every £1 invested in the centre, £6.50 was put back into the local community.

This is the sort of evidence needed to show the value and impact of libraries—and not just national or public libraries but also school libraries. It can be hard to gather such information but that shouldn’t stop us trying.

My final observation is a comment from Liz McGettigan who said, “public libraries are best placed to understand what businesses want and what their communities need.” I would say school libraries are also best placed to understand what teachers need and what students want. Do watch the webinar—and consider how the aspects discussed relate to your sector and whether there’s anything you could take forward.

Barbara Band is an award-winning Chartered librarian with over thirty years’ experience working in a range of schools and sectors. Currently an international speaker, writer and trainer, she offers consultancy services on all aspects of school librarianship and reading.  She is also Treasurer-Elect CILIP School Libraries Group, Vice Chair Great School Libraries Campaign, and CILIP Past President.