The COVID-19 pandemic and libraries – how did they cope?


The image accompanying this feature article was created using ChatGPT and DALL-E. It is a representation of a group of young mum’s enjoying a story with their children. It is representational only.


“Unless you stay relevant, there is no point wasting money on a library service”, says Pepper Mickan, while talking about the changing role of libraries. The old days of “shooshing” are long gone. Mickan is the Library Services Manager for Light Regional Council in South Australia’s lower mid-north region and goes on to talk about how much libraries have changed, particularly over the last 5 to 10 years.

“I think they’ve always been a community space, especially public libraries”. Mickan has seen many changes in her time volunteering and working in libraries, including improvements in technology and the format of books, newspapers and magazines. They’re all available digitally now, together with their traditional paper versions, but the biggest changes she has seen are the different ways people use the library spaces. Mickan has seen an increase in social inclusion and connectivity and says she “sees a big growth in that space, especially following the pandemic as people need to reconnect”.

Researcher Jade Smith noted that “libraries innovate and diversify according to cultural attitudes and expectations.” She recognised that a culture of change and continuous development is nothing new for libraries.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries were constantly buzzing with the excitement of children and adults as they took part in various activities. Storytime and ‘wiggle and giggle’ sessions for babies and toddlers, together with their caregivers, were always popular; as were crafting sessions and author talks for adults.

Young parents, like Holly Nixon, were able to go to their local libraries for activities with their children. “We really love the wiggle and giggle sessions.” She says that going to other playgroups can be quite expensive and going to the library sessions also gives her an opportunity to mix with other parents. “It’s a good morning out. You meet with other local mums and I really like the fact that they’re free, so money doesn’t come into play if you can’t afford it.”

Cheryl Bickford is an older user of the library service. Although primarily a reader of physical books, she sees the importance of other services being offered. She sees the library as “more all-encompassing than just books” and has always enjoyed being able to take part in the community craft activities on offer.

Bickford travelled a lot for work prior to the pandemic and would often find herself away from home. “I’d find myself in a rural town, and would use the library as a kind of hub”, she explained. “I would often hit the library, have a look at what they’ve got and borrow books or DVDs to take back to the hotel room.”

Enforced closures and restrictions during the pandemic meant people were no longer allowed into the libraries, so the libraries had to go to the people.

“You could see people wanting access to the library, and their reliance [on the library], whether for their books or just for social interaction”, Mickan said.

Jane Garner and others researched how libraries across Australia were affected by the COVID-19 crisis for the Australian Library and Information Association, the peak body overseeing libraries in Australia. They discovered that more than 50% of libraries in Australia either started or expanded their home delivery services to get library items to their customers, and many libraries increased their own social media use and other online activities to help their customers stay in touch.

It was clear that libraries were still needed in the community. Mickan explained they started their ‘Library to your door: Drop and wave’ service as a response to library closures. Borrowers were able to place requests with staff via email or telephone and those items were then delivered to them safely and conveniently. Interacting with the library’s borrowers at a safe distance helped reduce the feelings of loneliness being experienced in the community. Staff also took on the role of calling vulnerable borrowers that lived alone and chatting with them on the phone to help ease their sense of isolation.

Mickan said, “while we were shut for six weeks, we found out just how much the community relies on the services we offer”. She has a strong belief that meeting community needs is a key focus for how libraries can stay relevant. “We have different local communities and we need to adapt to that”, she added.

Libraries are no longer just about books and newspapers. They are spaces where community members come together to connect with one another. Mickan says, “libraries are often referred to as the third space, or the living room” because they fill a need for people to congregate outside of their work or homes.

Although mainly a reader, Bickford always enjoyed the social aspects of browsing for books in the library. “I like to wander around the shelves and find something I haven’t read before, or an author I might not have heard of.” She added that the pandemic restrictions had a dramatic effect on how she used the library. “I was kind of pushed more to using the online resources.” Choosing books through the online catalogue meant she lost some of the spontaneity of choosing them in the library. “I’ve missed that spontaneity more than anything”, Bickford said.

Not having human interaction with staff and other borrowers was discouraging for Bickford. Simple things like saying hello to people is something she missed.

As libraries re-opened there was a need to manage staff fears and anxieties, but also those of the community. Mickan said, “I think it was trying to manage people’s concerns as well. Wanting people to come back, and people needing to come back to the library, whether it was for social interaction or to keep them busy while they’re at home with library materials.” She was always aware of a fear of the unknown, and vigilant about the libraries operating in a way that kept customers safe, as well as her staff. “Staff are a great resource, but also humans with their own families”, she said.

Re-opening smaller rural libraries like those managed by Mickan was less stressful for her team, who were not having to turn away borrowers due to restrictions on the number of people allowed inside. People began to come back into the physical spaces, but they were spread throughout the day. Larger metropolitan libraries, who had a much bigger customer base, needed to be cautious and ensure limits were not breached. It was a stressful time for those staff members and sometimes a frustrating time for customers.

For Nixon, getting back to normal as much as possible has been welcomed. She said, “I’ve met a lot of new parents through the wiggle and giggle program that I wouldn’t have met before”. She has enjoyed getting back into the libraries and is happy that her young son has been able to make new friends too.

Nixon’s son was born in March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic. She said that while she wasn’t able to attend in-person sessions at the library due to lockdowns, she was grateful for the online sessions on offer. She always felt something was missing though, saying, “once you start going in person, you really feel that connection with other kids and other mums.”

While some people have been keen to get back to the normality of a pre-COVID lifestyle, not all community members are so comfortable. Bickford said, “as an older person, I’m still a bit anxious about enclosed spaces, so I’ll often wear a mask,” which is no longer compulsory in libraries, but many libraries still encourage.

Bickford also enjoys the fact she lives in a smaller rural community because it means she is unlikely to be confronted by large numbers of people in the library at any given time. She’s pushing herself to build new routines and starting to venture out into public spaces more. “I’m likely to browse more quickly than I did before; and I now drop into my library two or three times a week to say hello to whoever’s behind the counter.” She feels a sense of normality returning, albeit with a degree of caution. “Libraries offer a comfort zone, yeah, it’s good”, she said.

Garner’s research concluded that libraries were able to react well to the COVID crisis, although rapid and agile responses were sometimes let down by a lack of technology or infrastructure. On the whole, they found that libraries coped very well.

Mickan said, “because we were only shut for six weeks, it actually gave people enough time to miss what was on offer, but wasn’t long enough that people found alternative options.” She believes the forced library closures made people realise the connections they have in libraries are important. She sees libraries as spaces where people can feel safe and venture back out to reconnect with others in their communities.

As libraries restart their programs and welcome people back, staffing is an issue always on Mickan’s mind. Managing staff illness on top of normal rostering is something that needs to be considered. She also sees some positives that have come out of the pandemic and doesn’t want to just go back to how things were beforehand. She said, “the intent is to return to how we were pre-pandemic, but also taking those learnings and not ignoring them.” She sees libraries doing more in a community support role and facilitating various community partnerships, particularly in the small business entrepreneur space. Mickan believes it’s too hard to predict exactly what the future will look like, but said, “the one thing that will remain constant is supporting our community with their needs, and staying relevant.”

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