Public Libraries & COVID – My fear for the future.

Public Libraries & COVID – My fear for the future.

We’ve all feared for the future of public libraries in the past following the cutting of already meagre budgets that funded public libraries and their services followed by devastating closures.

Then there was the proliferation of the electronic publications and online resources for readers which many saw as a serious threat to the physical printed word in the form of books and newspapers.

It now seems that the death knell for the public libraries we all know and love could actually be the COVID pandemic. Not because it offers any alternative unlike eBooks but because it destroys the ability to provide the previous existing services.

Recently on social media I shared a newspaper article regarding the possible re-opening of some public libraries in the UK following the easing of social distancing on 4th July 2020.

My sense of happiness was soon clouded with more than a hint of sadness when I read the range of possible measures being voiced prior to the libraries opening their doors to the public.   These measures included but were not limited to:

  • Severe limits to number of people allowed in at once.
  • Strict and enforced social distancing.
  • Hand sanitisers.
  • Returned books crated and placed into quarantine for 72 hours.
  • Books that have been touched and not checked out also crated and placed into quarantine for 72 hours.
  • Librarians behind protective Perspex screens.
  • Curtailment of social activities such as children’s hours and book readings.

These measures are incredibly sad and might see the library experience, which can be so magical, distilled down to a homogenous, clinical and joyless transaction. Okay, we’re all hoping these measures are just for the short term but what if they aren’t?

Question: What if we see no other way for a long time to come?

The answer: The charm and allure of a good library becomes something as hurried, soulless and meaningless as a drive-through window at a bad fast-food joint.

The public library is, and should be, a wonderful place that arouses the senses as well as the intellect.

Libraries offer;

  •  Hours and hours worth of perusing well stocked shelves.
  • Hushed tones in the background with people quietly talking, including the occasional muted cough or sneeze.
  • Sounds of children excitedly giggling and running around the shelves.
  • The smell of the books with their evocatively aromatic pages and ink.
  • Even the touch and sound of the books with their creaking spines, rasping pages and clunking covers.
  • The smells of wood and carpeting and the inevitable sound of a dropped book hitting a hardwood floor in an echoing library.
  • Perhaps even the aroma of good latte and fresh pastries coming from the small café if there’s one onsite. If you love libraries you’ll totally understand all of this.

Can the already ravaged public library system survive, and will our future generations know the joy of real public libraries? They were endangered before COVID but now I feel they just edged closer to extinction, just another victim of this disruptive and destructive virus.

If the future has no place for the libraries we visited as kids, young adults and as elders it will be so much poorer for that.

Imagine a library post-COVID where you can no longer run your fingers along shelf upon shelf of books. No more leafing through pages without a care, placing them back onto the shelf and moving along to the next, and the next, and the next.

A library where you and your friends (or strangers for that matter) cannot sit together at public tables to thumb through reference books, text books, journals,  newspapers and magazines.

A place where kids cannot group together en masse to listen to a good story shared by a gifted reader, thus offering a spark of wondrous inspiration for the next generation of readers and writers. They can’t even rummage through the shelves and bins of children’s books, digesting the colourful book covers and enticing titles.

Imagine no kids sitting on a tiny chair or cross-legged on the floor in a colourful corner, a child-safe haven, flicking through a book devouring its contents, lost in another place and time contained within the pages. So incredibly sad to think this could disappear.

It’s not only the young that benefit, what about the oldest or poorest members of our communities? It would be foolish to believe many libraries only offer free entertainment in the form of books, newspapers and magazines for these citizens. As well as the entertainment, libraries offer free light, heat and much needed company for the poorer and most isolated within our communities. This crucial link might be an even more devastating blow to these people should the traditional library never return.

If COVID has its wicked way, the public library may simply become a click of a mouse and a pick-up or delivery of your order:– if you are fortunate enough to have access to the internet.

I cannot see public libraries surviving like that for very long. We must really pray that the rich experience that is the public library doesn’t become just another internet transaction.

A public library is not simply a faceless warehouse, it’s more than just the books it holds. It’s more than a means to an end, it’s a rich experience in and of itself. An experience every member of modern society should be able to experience.

Of course libraries offer much much more than printed books. I haven’t even touched upon the services available within the media section, computer section and of course the local history department. Even without these hugely important services and looking simply at the printed word side of things, the loss of public libraries as we know them seems unimaginable to me. Yet COVID could, in a dystopian future, bring this about.

We have to find a way to safeguard the future of our public libraries but it seems, at the moment, the only way is to follow prescribed guidelines whether they are an inconvenience or not. We need to work together to overcome this pandemic.


You can read the original short article that inspired me to write this, here:

© Colin Lawson Books


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