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NSW public libraries - the COVID-19 response

Public libraries across the state have adapted and thrived in response to COVID-19 restrictions and lockdown.

About the survey

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the State Library surveyed NSW public library managers to understand the immediate impacts the crisis had on their  library operations, staffing, programs and services.  The survey covered the period 1 March to 1 June 2020. A total of 90 responses were received representing a cross-section of regional and metropolitan library services from across NSW.

The aim of this survey was to capture information on how public libraries in New South Wales coped with the lockdown. How they responded to the challenges posed by the pandemic while that experience remains fresh, was a key driver. Those issues include such things as identifying barriers and challenges encountered; ‘on the fly’ solutions; understanding how they were supported, and who supported them; exploring what changes occurred to services and staffing during the closure; identifying gaps that may have opened up; and looking forward, to anticipated impacts on budgets and operations into the future. 

The survey was developed by the State Library of New South Wales, in partnership with Library Consultancy 641 DI, along with much valuable input from public library managers from across New South Wales. 

Results of the survey are available in NSW Public Libraries - the COVID-19 response: report of a survey into how library services adapted to a pandemic 

Download survey report

Summary

Sorting books for click and collect service during the COVID-19 pandemic

Sorting books for the Click and Collect service at LakeMac Libraries

The report describes how libraries initially adapted to balance continuity of service with community safety, and gives examples of the nimble responses that many libraries exhibited in response to council and government directives, while being mindful of community expectation.   

The survey asked respondents to look back to the initial period of the pandemic when libraries were open and adjusting, then to describe their services during lockdown, and then talk about reopening and future services.    

The responses indicate the commitment of public libraries to continue to provide services within the ever-tightening confines of the pandemic in the first half of 2020. Service changes to facilitate public access included extended loan limits and periods, swift pivoting to online delivery of reference services and public programs, significantly boosting ebook collections, implementing direct communication channels with library users and communities, and implementing home delivery and/or click and collect access to collections. The commentary provided by respondents about how these services were so quickly scoped and implemented is insightful, and demonstrates both the resilience of the public library sector and the depth of need that the community has for library services.

As library buildings began to open after 1 June 2020, libraries describe how they modified their spaces and onsite services to comply with COVID-19 Health Orders, while continuing with the volume of remote services that their communities had quickly adopted.

The report includes data in response to a questionnaire, comments from respondents and a series of questions for future discussion. This is particularly important because the situation is still unfolding, and it is likely there are more changes ahead.   

Two library staff loading books into a van

Macquarie Regional Library staff preparing for Book Express deliveries

Respondents also identify key gaps that were difficult to fill during the period, such as reaching people who aren’t online, cultural and linguistically diverse communities, skills shortages among some staff in online delivery, and the role libraries play in providing critical indoor public space for isolated people.    

In addition, respondents identify some barriers that have arisen after reopening including variable compliance among some library users with social distancing rules, and a heightened sense of anxiety among other readers and members.  

In conclusion, the experience of NSW public libraries over the March to July 2020 period has inspired the development of a range of responsive services 'on the fly', many of which will likely become part of the standard suite of library services at least into the medium term. The list of questions for further consideration that have arisen from respondents suggest a range of next steps for addressing, and the State Library looks forward to working with public libraries on practical solutions.