Your libraries are open

Richard Ovenden

Libraries are good in a crisis. The New Bodleian Library in Oxford was built in the late 1930s. During the Second World War, its deep storage basements accommodated both cultural treasures from London institutions and a major blood bank to support the Allied campaign in northern Europe. The Bodleian also housed a team from Admiralty Intelligence (headed by Ian Fleming, to help plan Operation Overlord), and library staff, working closely with their neighbours, Blackwell’s Bookshop, sent books to British POWs overseas.

Contrary to some assumptions, libraries have not closed during the current pandemic. The entrenched view of libraries is that they are just physical places where communities come together to access knowledge. Covid-19 has upended these assumptions. The question, for all libraries, as the crisis was unfolding in March, was whether we would support our communities better by staying open and continuing to provide the services that need the physical spaces to operate, or by closing, as libraries are busy places where the disease could easily spread, affecting frontline library staff as well as users.

The Bodleian is a busy research library (spread over 28 locations) which gets more than five thousand readers on an average day. We closed our doors to them on 17 March. Within a few days all the other research libraries in the country had done the same. It took slightly longer for most public libraries to close. The national lockdown, announced on 23 March, enabled the last libraries to shut their physical doors, much to the relief of the librarians, who had already turned their attention to shifting their work online.

Libraries have been open online for their communities throughout the pandemic. This point cannot be emphasised strongly enough. Libraries did not close. Over the past thirty years libraries have expanded their collections, services and ways of working into the digital realm, and this has enabled them to continue to support their communities during the lockdown. Arts Council England has offered £1000 to each local authority to buy more content, but this token gesture will cover only a handful of ebooks. Some mobile services have continued, and some libraries have ‘keep in touch’ phone calls with isolated patrons.

Many public library staff have had to be redeployed to other services by local authorities struggling to cope after years of austerity-driven cuts, highlighting other problems in the gaps exposed by the pandemic. In November 2018, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights pointed out that ‘public libraries are on the frontline of helping the digitally excluded and digitally illiterate who wish to claim their right to Universal Credit.’ Who has been providing that support during lockdown? As public libraries slowly reopen to walk-in users, some hope for those who depend on them is returning.

Staff in medical libraries, including my colleagues at the Bodleian, have been sourcing medical information, participating in rapid reviews, and co-authoring scientific papers on face coverings and therapeutic trials. In Ireland some library staff are involved in contact tracing. Librarians’ research skills are particularly useful in the scientific and public health response.

Online reference and ‘live chat’ facilities have been vital in supporting students and members of the public who felt stranded by the rapid lockdown. We released recordings of the background noise in three of the Bodleian reading rooms, downloaded by phenomenal numbers of people needing help in concentrating at kitchen tables the world over. Bristol University Library has expanded its wellbeing resources. At Cambridge University Library and many other institutions they have begun to build collections of digital and printed materials related to the pandemic as an important archival witness to these extraordinary times. Libraries are for the future.

Many larger libraries have been able to bring to the fore the work they have been doing to digitise their collections, from ancient papyri to political campaign posters. Many, like Edinburgh University Library, provide guided tours through their digitised treasures. Some institutions have been able to use the lockdown to work through backlogs of material waiting for processing: at the Bodleian the conversion of our manuscripts catalogue into online form – a massive task, long anticipated – is moving forward in giant leaps. The National Archives have taken the paywall down from their massive online offering, and many university presses have done the same with their rich backlists. What will the reaction be when the paywalls go back up?

The temporary relaxation of some restrictions by the Copyright Licensing Agency has helped, but the crisis exposes a range of problems with the current law around copyright. Since 1662, publishers have been required to deposit a copy of every book they publish with the British Library and other ‘legal deposit’ libraries (including the Bodleian). In 2013, legal deposit regulations expanded to include digital publications. Vast numbers of these books are inaccessible to the general public – the people funding the collection, who the collection has been created to benefit.

In New Zealand the government sees investing in libraries and archives as part of the package of measures to protect their society. In May, the UK government announced a Cultural Renewal Taskforce chaired by Neil Mendoza (the provost of Oriel College, Oxford). Unfortunately, none of the taskforce has significant or compelling experience of libraries or archives, and the press release didn’t mention them. The library sector has been allocated a working group, but archives are once again left unrepresented. A missed opportunity from the culture minister, who as we begin to reopen our physical spaces (the British Library on 23 July, the Bodleian shortly afterwards) must recognise the positive role that libraries and archives have been playing during the pandemic, and the transformative role that they can play in supporting their communities as we emerge from it.


  • 11 July 2020 at 3:43pm
    Andrew Prescott says:
    Many thanks to Richard Ovenden for reminding us of the amazing contribution libraries have made to keeping education, business and culture going during the lockdown. I cannot resist adding to Richard's list of remarkable library services the work of that wonderful independent library, the London Library. The London Library's postal loans service has always been treasured by its members for its helpfulness and speed of response. During the lockdown, the London Library suspended postal charges for loans and, except for a short intermission at the height of the lockdown, has continued to post books out to members. Where digital resources were not available, this was a real life-line and I would like to pay tribute to the devotion and dedication of the London Library's staff in maintaining this fantastic service in the most difficult of circumstances.
    Andrew Prescott

  • 11 July 2020 at 4:06pm
    tomroper says:
    “ The national lockdown, announced on 23 March, enabled the last libraries to shut their physical doors”. Not exactly. Many NHS libraries, such as the one where I work, kept doors open for clinicians, with social distancing measures in place, as well as offering all the online services
    mentioned in this article.

  • 11 July 2020 at 5:32pm
    Stephen Watts says:

    Thank you to Richard Ovenden for all his positive comments :

    Nonetheless my Libraries do not remain open, for me and for many like me. The BL it is true is due to re-open on 22nd July, but only with certain Reading Rooms. UCL Libraries remain understandably closed to perfectly legal external readers, the status of the NPL on the Southbank Centre remains uncertain (& at my last viewing the Southbank Centre is not due to re-open until 2021), the Scottish Poetry Library also remains closed : all for very good reasons that I wouldn't want to argue with & I would support them in not re-opening until they feel safe, for staff & readers, to do so. But please do not say that 'Your Libraries have not closed' : that just adds pain onto existing pain. And while of course I realise the wonderful efforts of many Libraries to remain open and of course realise the value of much on-line access, many of us remain deeply sad at the continued (even if health-sensitive) denial of physical access to much loved books & to the physical language of our living spirits which Government has not even the slightest sense or cognisance of. I contrast the realities here with those in some other European countries where bookshops & Libraries were among the first places to carefully & in safety re-open their doors ...

  • 11 July 2020 at 7:56pm
    Simon Nicholls says:
    A clearer distinction between local libraries and institutional libraries would have helped with the clarity of this article. Bravo to our fine institutional libraries. The local library where I live, in North London, has for years been so impoverished, so rarely staffed and so irregularly open that it couldn't be taken seriously as a public facility for years before the pandemic, let alone during it. With the greatest respect to Professor Ovenden, this catastrophic situation throughout the country may not be clear from the fastnesses of the Bodleian. Simon Nicholls

  • 15 July 2020 at 5:40pm
    Jason Barlow says:
    I got very excited about the sounds of the Bodleian Library app featured in this piece. I accessed the app on my mobile phone, and encountered nothing but absolute silence. Please tell me there's a glitch and that I'm not the subject of some April (it is still April, surely?) Fool's joke?

  • 15 July 2020 at 6:10pm
    Jason Barlow says:
    An update on my travails with the Bodleian library app: I've got it working on my laptop (using Chrome) and am currently reading Nabokov's Ada or Ardor against the backdrop of the Upper Reading Room in the Old Library. I love the sound of the occasional page being turned, and the soft, unhurried footsteps that occasionally intrude.

    And someone just sneezed!

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