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Editing the first In The Libraries for 2020, mere weeks into a statewide lockdown which saw our libraries close to the public and confined most of us to home, was a surreal experience. The reports of author talks, school holiday programs and other events, some of which took place mere weeks before, seemed so far removed, so impossibly out of reach from the reality of life during a global pandemic. With a prevailing sense of uncertainty and fear in the air, it would have been understandable for NSW public library users to equate closed doors with a suspension of library services.
“Thank you, thank you thank you!”
- A grateful Ku-ring-gai Library user
What soon became apparent however was that nothing would stop the determined staff maintaining public libraries across NSW from getting on with the job. No sooner had the doors shut than delivery plans were hatched, loans were extended, digital collections were expanded, and library programs were moved online. The response was so enthusiastic, the solutions so creative, that were it not for the inevitable caveats of “moved online”, “turned digital” etc., the reports of library operations and programming sent through to In the Libraries would not have seemed very far removed from usual circumstances.
The attitude from library staff everywhere could be boiled down to “the show must go on”- and in the case of Canterbury-Bankstown, that “show” involved feather boas and sequined tiaras! In staging a colourful filmed National Simultaneous Storytime performance, they were among many libraries who revealed a theatrical flair in embracing the possibilities provided by digital programming. Libraries became instant experts on live streaming events via social media or Zoom, YouTube channels were created, and previously hidden talents were put on display.
It was also an opportunity for capturing history, with libraries introducing oral history, diary and art projects to capture the historical significance of the times. This sentiment was expressed by Richmond Upper Clarence Regional Library who produced an excellent video documenting their experience of libraries in the age of COVID-19.
While the technical feats of getting library activities out of buildings and onto screens are impressive, it is the spirit of connection fostered in these efforts, and in that of the many libraries who provided delivery services throughout the closure, that really stands out. The speed and enthusiasm with which click-and-collect and/or home delivery services were rolled out was both impressive and heartwarming. With council rangers and other non-library staff roped in to assist, it was a truly collaborative effort, and one not soon forgotten by grateful library users. The challenges of the pandemic made clear that when thinking about the concept of a library service, the second word is no less operative than the first. In fact, in a time of social isolation the role of our libraries as centres of community engagement became more important than ever.
“So hard living without you”
- A relieved Lake Macquarie Library user
June 1 saw a lifting of orders which allowed for reopening, and public libraries turned their attention towards making the adjustments necessary to operate under the ever-evolving COVIDsafe guidelines. While it remained far from business as usual, relieved NSW communities returned to their beloved libraries enthusiastically, many expressing their gratitude for the hard work involved in keeping the library service running while doors were shut, and still more thankful just for the existence of public libraries at such a time. As a Campbelltown Library user enthused: “you’ve been greatly missed by the community- even more than we all thought’.
“I can’t believe you’re doing this for us!”
- An appreciative Bayside Library user
As the year progressed, libraries began to cautiously reintroduce some programs, while retaining the online presence necessary through the period of closure. Our final issues of In the Libraries reported on this new reality of a blended service that will likely outlast COVID-19 restrictions, with libraries taking advantage of the technological infrastructures the pandemic forced them to put in place, while welcoming more and more library users back into their buildings.
If 2020 has taught us anything it is that we can’t predict what the future holds. There is little doubt however, that our public library staff will rise to any challenge faced with the same enthusiasm, passion and ingenuity that has provided hope, comfort and inspiration throughout this troubled year.