How can the library community serve people in institutions, such as prisons and homes for the elderly, in times of Covid-19?

We are grateful to Lisa Krolak, Chair of the IFLA Working Group on Prison Libraries, and member of the Standing Committee of the Section on Library Services to People with Special Needs for this blog. You can also see our interview with Lisa about her publication: Books Beyond Bars.

Libraries in many places, all over the world are physically closed, and instead promoting their digital services. This is great for those of us who have access to the internet, a device, and the relevant skills. But it is of no help to those people, who for various reasons, do not have this access. This includes prisoners, who are denied access for security reasons, as well as members of our communities who simply do not have the relevant hardware and digital skills.

Locked-Up and Locked-Down: Services to Prisoners

Recently I conducted a global survey on the current situation of prison libraries. It showed that prisons all over the world are in lockdown to prevent the virus to enter this closed space. As a result, visitors and services provided from the outside often have stopped.

This means, for example, that prisoners will not be allowed to see their families for the coming weeks and months, a situation that has already led to riots in some prisons. It also means that services provided by outside staff or community volunteers often have been paused, such as worship and church services, legal advice or vocational training opportunities.

In addition, prison libraries are closed unless they are run by inmates and/or core prison staff. When still open, they often provide restricted services, such as allowing only few prisoners to enter to ensure social distancing, limited opening hours, or denying free access to the library space and rather providing access to materials via catalogue or book carts directly to the cells.

Meanwhile, prison library services implemented or supported by prison librarians or volunteers from the outside, and prison outreach services, such as book clubs, creative writing, reading events or art workshops have been suspended until further notice.

The survey shows the need for creative solutions, such as enabling use of internet telephony services such as Skype to speak with family members, providing more newspapers and news magazines to keep prisoners informed, and sharing donated books or other materials, such as DVDs, CDs, puzzles or games.

Sheltered but not Isolated? The Case of Older Persons

Of course, it is not only prisoners who are limited in their movements. Older persons living in care homes are in a similar situation, with strict restrictions on contact with the outside world.

While such measures are vital in order to reduce the chances of the virus reaching a particularly vulnerable group, they also mean that usual activities which contribute to the wellbeing of residents have been paused.

In these circumstances, there is again a pressing need to find alternative ways to help residents pass the time comfortably, with as many possibilities as possible to learn or simply to enjoy books and other materials.

The same goes for others in restricted situations – patients in hospitals, people living in refugee camps, and those living with vulnerable family members who need to limit their own activities. All would benefit strongly from better access to books and library services.

A Possible Solution?

At a time that there is such a pressing need for access to reading material, (public) libraries are physically closed all over the world, with so many books and materials sitting on shelves unused.  These are materials that would be appreciated by all those who have lost access to services – prison community members, older persons in isolation, patients in hospitals or people living in refugee camps.

In great examples in my home country Germany, a public library has reached out to homes for the elderly by loaning boxes with library books and materials for the coming weeks. Publishers donate books and with the help of a local branch library they are packed into bags and delivered to the doorsteps of people in need. Clearly, in such initiatives, every step needs to be taken to ensure that any such programme does not become a vector of infection – national advice should be followed at all times.

An alternative approach, which avoids physical visits comes from Hamburg. For several years, Hamburg Public Libraries have run an outreach project called “Medienboten”, where volunteer book messengers visit seniors and homebound citizens at their homes and institutions to read and talk with them and to provide them with library materials.

As this is not possible at the moment they offer that their volunteers read and talk with them over the phone. Many use this opportunity to get explained, step by step, how to use their digital devices to be able to Skype, use social media or download electronic library materials.

It would be great to hear about similar initiatives elsewhere, using creative ways to provide access to books and materials for education, information or simply recreation when they are needed most, and to share lessons and ideas on how such practices could be shared further.

I hope, of course, that more (public) libraries will also consider reaching out to their local prisons, elderly homes, refugee camps and others to explore options to assist those who are currently cut off, particularly as they might be locked up in their cells or rooms for the next weeks or months, while many of us slowly are allowed to move around again.

I would be interested to hear your ideas and experiences.

Stay safe!

Lisa Krolak ([email protected])

Chair, IFLA Working Group on Prison Libraries

Standing Committee, Library Services to People with Special Needs Section