For all that anyone would like to be purely objective or rational, we are all influenced by our attitudes. Consciously or sub-consciously, we tend to have preferences for certain ideas, values, or types of behaviour, which help shape our decisions.
This is why such a key focus of library advocacy is how we change people’s attitudes, in order to ensure that, when a key decision-moment comes, this is as favourable as possible for our services.
Yet of course, attitudes do not just shape the decisions of politicians or funders, but also affect choices within the library field, as well as those taken by users.
Moreover, while advocacy can take time, sometimes attitudes can be changed or shaped by relatively sudden events. The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to be no exception here.
So what attitude changes could we expect as a result of the pandemic, and how might these in turn affect the way that libraries work? This blog shares some initial ideas, and welcomes further reflections.
Interpersonal Relations: for many, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way they think about contacts with others. From efforts to avoid other people when going to the shops, limitations on the size of gatherings, or simply socialising online without a shared activity as a reference point, the way many people relate with others has changed. Especially for those living alone, this has been hard.
The long-term change in attitudes from this may vary from person to person. Some will want to return to ‘normal’ as quickly as possible, even at the risk of causing new peaks in cases. Others will remember the warnings, even after official restrictions are lifted.
Libraries are likely to have both types of people among their users, which of course does not necessarily make life easier. There does risk being a need to find ways to enforce rules in the case of users who are putting others at risk, which is clearly not an easy thing to do.
But there may also be a case for finding ways to meet the needs of users who remain concerned, for example through smaller group or individual support, or use of digital, in order not to lose contact in the long-term. This can require extra resources, depending on the degree to which some users risk staying away. Assessing how lasting this attitude change will be is best done at the local level.
Greater openness to digital: perhaps uniquely, compared to any previous crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the potential of digital to provide alternatives to physical activities or services. Clearly, for those without internet connections, the potential has remained unrealised – a major priority for action in the future.
Among libraries in particular, we have seen great examples of uses of digital technologies, including innovative applications such as the use of Google Forms to create virtual escape rooms. Yet a lot of the time, the changes have been less about ‘new’ innovation, but rather the application of pre-existing digital tools in the library context.
Effectively, the pandemic appears to have accelerated the adoption of digital, bringing activities such as consultations via WhatsApp, online chats with librarians, or virtual storytimes forward. This may be testimony to a change in attitudes – a greater openness to apply technologies on the ground on the part of libraries, and a greater readiness to use them on the part of users.
The rises noted in numbers of registrations for library cards, and then use of digital resources would back this up. These resources were available before, but people preferred to use physical options. The pandemic has forced them to reconsider. A key question will be whether libraries and users stick with these digital options into the future – in other words, is the attitude change lasting?
Connectivity as a human right?: linked to changing attitudes to digital tools – both on the side of libraries themselves and that of their users – is awareness of the importance of being able to get online in the first place. In particular in the most connected societies, the pandemic has underlined the risks of being on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Students in particular who have not been able to get online have been very clearly left behind, while those already lucky enough to have connections have been able to continue with their learning. People needing to apply for unemployment benefits have found it harder to do so when requests can only be made online.
There is also growing awareness of the importance of decent internet connectivity, with excessively low thresholds meaning that people who cannot make meaningful use of the internet are still counters as connected, and so do not receive support.
While the continued failure to give everyone options for meaningful connectivity has been around for some time, the pandemic has brought this into focus. There is perhaps hope that, in the wake of the crisis, there will be a greater readiness to see connectivity in the same way that we see access to running water, and support efforts to provide it effectively.
Libraries, both as centres for getting online, and nodes in networks, can be part of this.
Greater respect for science: another potential change relates to the readiness of policy-makers not just to draw on evidence, but also to be seen to be drawing on evidence, in order to justify the decisions they take.
This follows a number of years of concern about ‘fake news’, and the seeming rise of a class of politician almost taking pride in ignoring what ‘the experts’ say. Depressingly, for a field built on the idea of the importance of gathering, organising, preserving and applying information, these politicians have seemed to do well in elections.
While this group of politicians have clearly not left the scene, at least in some cases, there is a sense that it is both safer and wiser to draw on expertise in order to define policy. Whether this is sincere is open for discussion, but it is certainly welcome for libraries, at least for as long as it lasts.
The internet needs regulating?: a final potential change in attitudes returns to the digital sphere. We have seen, over a number of years, a growing sense that the internet has both its upsides and downsides for society.
Connected to this, we have seen increasing efforts to try and regulate the internet, and in particular its biggest platforms, as a means of trying to minimise the negatives, albeit in a piecemeal way. Legislation has looked at copyright, terrorist content, fake news, marketplaces and other issues, often taking different approaches to each.
However, when COVID-19 struck, the World Health Organization moved quickly to express concern about an ‘infodemic’ – the spread of misinformation about the virus, undermining public health messaging from governments.
Platforms have worked hard to respond, blocking, blurring, or tagging misleading messages as misleading. It is perhaps not by accident that Twitter has felt readier to intervene in messages from the President of the United States now, even if these did not deal specifically with COVID-19.
With pressure in the United States to review rules around the liability of platforms, and legislation already under discussion on the same point, there is a chance that a greater readiness to regulate the internet could lead to sweeping new rules.
For libraries, this will be an area to follow closely. Clearly – as libraries know themselves – there can be types of content which are illegal or unacceptable. However, deciding where this is the case takes careful judgement, and legislation can be a blunt tool, which can unduly limit the scope libraries have to offer access to information.
These are just five areas where we may expect a change in attitudes as a result of COVID-19. All affect the way that libraries provide services, requiring innovation, adaptation and potentially advocacy.
None are certain of course. It remains to be seen how far attitudes change permanently, at a societal level. Do share your own views in the comments!