Last year was one for the books, that’s for sure. Lockdown proved a huge boost to the Irish book trade, with more than 13 million books sold, up by almost a million on 2019. Sales totalled €161.5m, the highest figure in 12 years. British research published in May revealed that people had almost doubled their reading time since March. In December former East 17 frontman Tony Mortimer made headlines when he revealed his newfound love for fiction. Never having read a novel until his daughter introduced him to the books app on his phone last spring, his joyful social media posts about the 70 books he devoured since made him famous all over again.
ut if 2020 was positive for the book trade, what did it mean for libraries, which traditionally focus on in-person services? With more than 12 million items available to borrow (including DVD box sets, eBooks, audiobooks, eMagazines and eNewspapers), the public library service is provided by Ireland’s 31 local authorities as a shared system operating as Libraries Ireland. On February 29, 2020 it staged the first National Library Open Day, designed to showcase the services, clubs, classes, exhibitions and activities available for free at Ireland’s 330-plus library branches. If that date rings a bell, it’s because Ireland’s first case of Covid-19 was confirmed the same day.
As with every sector, lockdown was new territory. With few staff equipped to work from home, organising laptops and remote access was a priority. Staff, some of whom had never used social media before, had to learn new skills and share knowledge quickly. As Angela Cassidy, divisional librarian in Dublin City Public Libraries’ communications and digital transformation team, explains: “We had to find a way of maintaining lines of communication as well as assigning work and maintaining a level of public service in very difficult times.” The switch to online services was harder in some smaller counties, says Cassidy, because library staff were redeployed to other areas.
What could have taken months of planning and deliberation happened almost overnight simply because there was no alternative. Including ‘contact and collect’, home delivery and new how-to videos, the libraries’ response was imaginative and wide-ranging. Many initiatives were staff-led, such as the video versions of children’s books made by the staff of the Dublin’s Central Library in the Ilac Centre. One photographs pages, another records the text, a third creates subtitles. Although they worked separately and remotely, senior library assistant Anne Buckley found the collaboration fulfilling. “My job normally involves so much personal interaction with the public that the idea of working from home seemed impossible at first,” she says. “Books are my thing, after all. But humans are nothing if not adaptable.”
One City One Book is one of the most significant undertakings in the library calendar. Last April, the Dublin programme of more than 30 events featuring Christine Dwyer Hickey’s Tatty was postponed. But by immediately focusing on creating new online content — including video readings by actress Seána Kerslake and a podcast in association with MoLI, the Museum of Literature Ireland — the festival found a way to carry on. The flagship online event in association with Dublin Book Festival, which would have had an expected audience of 300-400 in real-life, attracted a total audience of 1,050.
“Moving events online has changed our audience from a local one to one that includes Ireland and the rest of the world,” says Jackie Lynam of the Dublin City of Literature team. “Our online events are accessible to a wider audience and are available as a permanent record, so post-restrictions we envisage most of our events being a hybrid of real life and virtual to reach as many people as possible.”
Traditionally, the book chosen for One City One Book (recently renamed One Dublin One Book) goes on to be the most borrowed library book that year. This year’s is Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, a story of kindness and friendship that Lynam describes as “a tonic in these difficult times”.
In 2018, Libraries Ireland launched a five-year strategy, ‘Our Public Libraries 2022, Inspiring, Connecting and Empowering Communities’. This plan aimed to improve access, use and visibility of libraries as an essential community service, and establish them as go-to places for a range of sustainable, integrated public services.
It couldn’t have envisaged that within two years they would be operating as a complex range of online offerings rather than physical places, and that its focus on establishing libraries as a hub of integrated public services would, albeit temporarily, be defunct.
As part of the response to the closure, funding for e-books was increased. The national book download service BorrowBox had a big jump in users. Yet, despite the demand for online resources, Cassidy says: “People were delighted when we moved to a call-and-collect service. There was huge demand on it initially, showing the pent-up demand for physical books.”
The surge in usage of digital services will have a permanent effect, but it will not spell the end for the brick-and-mortar library. “Covid has made huge changes,” Cassidy says. “But the buildings remain relevant without a doubt — prior to Covid we had seen a strong shift in terms of people spending more time in libraries, taking advantage of study space, free Wi-Fi, public PCs and laptops, printing and scanning.
“There is still demand for these services, and we expect this demand to remain post-Covid, along with the enduring popularity of library events for people of all ages and interests. With the growth in family apartment living, people need and value space, both to study and to work. Libraries have always provided this space and we don’t envisage a decline in demand for it when life returns to normality.”
Books have the power to open the world up to us while we stay still. Today, we can say the same of our libraries.