Virtual and physical library services—it’s not a competition

From his perspective as Strategy and Commissioning Manager - Universal Services, Warwickshire County Council, and President, Libraries Connected, Ayub Khan MBE shares his unique perspective on what's been happening in libraries, particularly public libraries, as they grow their services, change to adapt to new technologies and prove their value to their communities. 

Libraries post-Covid

I hate to start an article by mentioning Covid yet again but it seems necessary for context.

Library services across the U.K. saw a massive increase in the use of online libraries during the coronavirus pandemic. Face-to-face services in library buildings were unavailable—or extremely limited—for months. Many who discovered online library services for the first time, of necessity, have continued to use them. The challenge we continue to face here—and I suspect elsewhere—is attracting people back into library buildings.

More cuts?

To my mind, physical and virtual libraries are complimentary—both part of the same offerings. They are not in competition and many customers happily use both. However, when footfall and circulation of physical objects decrease, decision-makers are unlikely to increase, or even maintain, existing library budgets. That means less money for online libraries as well as their physical counterparts.

Budget cuts have been a challenge for our library services over many years. There could well be more to come as the U.K. government grapples with the nation’s finances. The war in Ukraine has had an impact on supplies and prices across the world—just as most countries were hoping to put the economic troubles of the pandemic behind them.

In the U.K. we have had a period of political instability as well—with three Prime Ministers in quick succession and short-lived economic plans that spooked the money markets and caused our currency to fall. Our economy is recovering more slowly than most. Inflation is rising, postal and railway workers—even nurses—are striking for more pay as the cost-of-living crisis bites. Under the circumstances, more cuts to public services would seem inevitable—but will they fall on libraries?

Value and advocacy

Not necessarily, in my opinion. The library sector here, as evidenced by a Libraries Connected report, is getting much better at evidencing its value to society and persuading decision-makers that libraries must be adequately—if not generously—funded.

Libraries performed extremely well during the pandemic, showing their true worth by finding clever and innovative ways to adapt services and support their communities. So many customers called libraries ‘lifesavers’ during lockdowns. Local and central government recognised their value, adaptability and resilience.

Now the cost-of-living crisis presents another opportunity for libraries to shine. It’s not just the poorest families who face the prospect of a bleak winter. Fast-rising food and fuel prices mean households further up the income scale are worried about putting food on the table—or turning the heating on as temperatures drop.

Warm libraries

The sector has responded with a “warm libraries” initiative. In my own service, Warwickshire Libraries and Communities, we are offering a warm welcome to customers new and old—with friendly heated spaces, extra fun activities, comfortable chairs for longer stays, hot drinks and helpful advice. “Warm Libraries” are a way of attracting new customers—and hopefully keeping them. The initiative presents an opportunity to showcase what libraries have to offer, nowadays, to new or lapsed audiences. For adults who haven’t used libraries since their schooldays, it always seems to be a revelation. Books are only, excuse the pun, part of the story.

Services and social interaction

In Warwickshire we offer events and activities for all ages, information about other local services, knowledgeable and friendly staff, free public computers, and technology in abundance in our Let’s Make Spaces. We have pioneered autism-friendly local libraries and are now looking to use the library network to support children with special needs through sensory and creative play. We run ‘knit and natter’ groups to combat loneliness, jobs clubs for those seeking work, bereavement sessions for the grieving, host book clubs and author events, and coding clubs for children—the list goes on.

Opportunities for real social interaction, in a public space that genuinely welcomes all-comers, are, I would argue, ever-more important in an increasingly online world. Please don’t think I have a fondness for “the good old days”. I am a champion of technology and was the Digital Lead for the sector support organisation Libraries Connected—way back when it was called the Society of Chief Librarians. It’s just that I see virtual and online libraries as interdependent, not an either or.

Widening the remit

There are, of course, other opportunities to make more of libraries and help safeguard their future. Warwickshire Libraries and Communities have recently become a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) which means we receive additional funding directly from Arts Council England (ACE) for an initial 3-year period. This will be used for activities and programmes to extend and enhance our arts, heritage and culture offerings across the county. It will also, most importantly, allow us to plan spending over a 3-year term with certainty and ambition.

ACE welcomes NPO applications from library services and they have a high success rate—partly because they are relatively rare. But widening the remit is a more general point. Libraries have always reinvented themselves to meet the customer demands and expectations of the day. We must continue to do so, whether in physical buildings or online. Standing still is not—and has never been—an option.

Value of libraries

Public libraries should be seen as a solution to societal problems such as loneliness, the digital divide and the cost-of-living crisis. The success of e-lending and digital services shows there is still a need and desire for libraries—but what they offer continues to change.

In a world of content overload, libraries offer an antidote to false news. As one of the most trusted professions, librarians should make more of this role in the future.