I have become used to having an axe over my head. Anyone who works in public service, particularly libraries, will tell you that Covid has devastated local authority budgets, which were already being stretched towards breaking point via austerity.
But a few weeks ago, I became even more acutely aware of it when I was pulled (not literally, as we must keep two metres apart from our colleagues at all times) aside and warned that I had been caught breaching our Covid safety rules, putting myself and others at risk and potentially earning me a formal disciplinary or worse.
I had allowed a member of the public to place their mobile phone in my gloved hand.
I tried to explain that the library user in question had asked me to print off a series of photographs for them; the user was severely dyslexic, and our print system can be difficult for even the most IT-savvy of users.
At the end of the day, after closing time, we all sat down in a socially-distanced circle with our managers and I pleaded my case: at least once per shift now, I find myself comforting desperate and sobbing adults who have never had to navigate the benefits system before. My colleagues confirmed, in turn, that this was more than a daily occurrence now. We were, and are, seeing unprecedented levels of unemployment and destitution amongst our community.
Libraries have long been vital parts of the community, but this year, their importance became more emphatically evident than ever as one of the last places that people can come to speak with a human being face-to-face. With so many charities, local authority branches and government departments switching to home-working or shutting down entirely during the pandemic, they are the last place on the high street where a person can come in, sit and not be expected to spend money. I cannot overemphasise the importance of this: even if we provided nothing else, this would be a literal lifesaver to so many vulnerable members of the community.
Libraries are also some of the last places to get free internet access, where members of the public without smartphones or tablets can find information, instantly, on the ever-changing tier-status of their areas and what that means for them. (More than half of the enquiries we’ve had at my branch have been regarding local lockdown rules and regulations, because people trust us librarians to have the most up-to-date information on these things.)
The cruellest irony is that those people who would normally reach out to a family member or friend for ‘tech help’ cannot do so due to lockdown restrictions. In many cases, speaking to a librarian who isn’t currently allowed to get near enough to touch their device is their only option.
Librarians aren’t just overwhelmed, understaffed and bound by Covid restrictions; there’s also an ongoing sense that we are living on borrowed time. In addition to our regular duties, we are pressured to justify the continued existence of our branches and our own employment. Many of us, myself included, have had to re-interview for our own positions at some point or another.
We have watched, dismayed, as colleagues have been laid off, as branches previously shut for lockdown have been declared ‘too expensive’ and subsequently closed permanently.
Libraries need funding and support from their local communities. This support might take the form of increased usage, or it might mean an email or letter to a local authority to remind them of the importance of the service. (After all, we are already paying for the library service in our taxes.) It might mean signing the odd petition against closure, or writing to those branches where you’ve received help in the past to thank them. These things are noticed by management, and by local authorities.
These are small gestures that have big impact. Plastic screens and curb-side services and quarantine boxes might have changed libraries somewhat, but with enough funding and support we library workers can continue to provide a vital service to our communities.
We cannot let libraries close permanently. Much more than a source for borrowed books, they provide the kinds of services that don’t seem urgent until suddenly, they are. It is where a young woman with bruises on her face, who will become homeless this week, can print off the threatening text messages she has received from her abusive partner so that she can access emergency help for domestic violence victims; it’s where a man my father’s age, trying not to faint from hunger, can print off the bank statements standing between him and his emergency payment to buy groceries.
The woman whose phone I had handled was looking for help to print photographs of her battered child as evidence for court, where she hoped to gain sole custody of her tiny son and get him away from his abusive father.
When she turns to the library for help, it needs to be there for her. If we can support our local library now, then it will be there later to support our communities through poverty, plague and anything else life might throw our way. It’s all part of a librarian’s job.
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