Shelf help: how Scotland’s libraries adapted to lockdown

Library bookshelves with books and textbooks

Library bookshelves (credit: Bet_Noire/GettyImages)

Scotland’s 541 libraries had to shut their doors in March as social distancing and lockdown came into place.

Although the buildings closed, librarians across Scotland came up with new ways to reach and serve their communities.

A new study funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) is taking stock of how Scotland’s libraries adapted to lockdown.

Peter Reid, Professor of Librarianship at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, is leading the survey. He and his colleague Lyndsay Bloice have so far collated 4,000 snippets of how libraries adapted to lockdown, and they are in the process of interviewing librarians and managers across Scotland.

Book borrowing is central to libraries, but in Scotland they are seen as trusted spaces, and they play a huge role in our civic life. They deliver employability and wellbeing programmes, help people with literacy and numeracy skills and work with often hard-to-reach communities.

This is the first time in our history that all of our libraries have closed, and we must understand the impact of that.

How libraries adapted to COVID-19

Libraries across Scotland adapted their services differently. Aberdeen’s libraries reported a surge in the borrowing of e-books, some Glasgow libraries developed online book clubs and a Shetland library ran online storytelling sessions.

Professor Reid’s research will look into whether the governance of libraries and working from home constrained or encouraged innovation and creativity when it came to adapting services.

In Scotland, libraries are either managed by the local authority or by an arm’s length trust that’s usually associated with something like a leisure centre.

Some library teams may have been constrained by bureaucracy when it came to using social media channels, whereas others were given autonomy and the chance to be really creative.

I think lots of libraries have been inspired by Orkney and Shetland libraries’ Twitter accounts over the years, which have been so engaging and out of the box.

We’re also looking at whether libraries’ ability to adapt and innovate is linked to levels of investment or budget cuts in recent years.

Reid points out that, although library governance and practice is different in Scotland, his final report will be useful for librarians across the UK.

This project will paint the picture of how libraries, a statutory service, responded to a period of extreme challenge. It will also be a valuable learning tool for libraries, something they can look at to see what colleagues in different parts of the country tried, whether successfully or not.

Reid believes the research could help inform the development of future public library policy, and enhance understanding of service delivery, models of governance and resilience.

Last updated: 28 January 2021

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