When IFLA’s Trend Report was released in 2013, the strapline was ‘Riding the Waves or Caught in the Tide’.
The Report focused on long-term trends affecting the way we live, work, interact and learn.
Today, libraries are of course faced with the very immediate question of how to provide services during a pandemic, and manage a recovery that is likely to be uneven and slow.
In particular, there will be key questions about when special measures taken in the context of the pandemic should be withdrawn.
This applies, of course, to restrictions on travel, on the opening of libraries, schools and businesses, and to the huge focus of resources into boosting medical capacity.
Finding the right time to return to ‘normal’ (insofar as this is possible) is a hard question, and decisions will need to take account of many factors, not least risks to health.
However, there are arguably some measures and practices which shouldn’t be withdrawn at all. In effect, as the wave recedes, how can we avoid these good things being caught in the backwash?
This blog offers a few suggestions of things we might want to keep from the time of COVID-19, building on our own experience and ideas shared by others.
Better deals for digital content: 2019 was marked, in particular, by tensions around the decision by some publishers to enforce embargoes on eBooks before making them available to libraries.
With the beginning of the crisis, not only was this position lifted, but there were welcome steps by a number of publishers to offer discounts on electronic content, helping to meet major increases in demand. As Publishers Weekly noted, increases in library use have gone hand-in-hand with increases in sales, and sales and profits have increased for many individual companies.
Of course, we are far from a perfect situation. Some special deals have lapsed, and eBooks remain expensive for libraries in comparison with the prices paid by consumers. In the academic field, there have been particular concerns about high and rising prices.
As positive sales figures for publishers are reported and analysed, we can at least hope that there will be a greater readiness to accept that library lending of digital content is not a harm, but rather a support to digital reading in general.
Awareness of the Need for Open Access and Copyright Reforms: a further impact of the crisis, at least in some countries, has been awareness of the need to ensure that copyright laws keep up with technology, in particular by ensuring that libraries can pursue their missions just as well through digital means as through analogue ones.
Linked to this is the drive to increase the share of research published open access, by-passing the need to rely on copyright exceptions in order to access and use work. Millions of educators, learners and researchers will now have their own experience of whether materials are available to them online or not.
Bringing together this experience in order to sustain the momentum could see important progress, replicating the progress we are seeing in the proposals for reform made in Australia and Japan. At the international level, reiterating and underlining that existing global rules allow such steps will also be helpful.
Improved Services to People with Mobility Issues: during the pandemic, whole populations have discovered what it is like having to live life without having access to the physical premises of libraries. However, this was already the case for many – those living in remote areas, with limited mobility, in care homes or in prisons.
In response to lockdowns, there has been a wave of innovation in the provision of content and services, both to wider user groups and targeted on individuals most in need.
When safe re-opening is possible, there will clearly be a limit on resources – providing services offline and online can require much more effort and investment than providing just one of the two. However, we can hope that lessons from the crisis are learned and those without the possibility to access a library physically will benefit from lasting improvements in provision.
More regular, shorter meetings: pre-COVID, the possibility of physical meetings – conferences, seminars and other events – tended to a large extent to structure the rhythm of cooperation and communication between professionals. Where there were electronic meetings, these tended to be smaller, serving mainly to keep things moving.
However, without the possibility to meet in person during the pandemic, we have seen mush more exploration of the scope of digital platforms to bring people together. For example, in Ireland, regular town hall meetings have brought together all librarians in the country on a regular basis – something that would previously only have been thought of as something for conferences.
Similarly, many of IFLA’s own sections have moved from coming together twice a year for longer periods to more frequent, shorter sessions. These have allowed greater responsiveness to events, and new possibilities for participation. This feels, certainly, like a good practice to maintain.
Bringing in new voices: linked to the above point, with physical meetings not possible, we have hopefully seen a lasting weakening of the idea that it is necessary to travel in order to be able to participate. While it is clear that poor connectivity remains a major challenge, it is certainly easier to address than that of finding the money, time and visas to attend meetings in other countries or continents.
Again drawing on IFLA experiences, there have been exciting new possibilities to attend meetings organised by colleagues around the world, learning from a wider and richer range of experiences. This has opened a door to a greater diversity in the voices heard within the library field.
While of course meeting again in person will be important, both personally and as a means of reenergising the wider community, there will be value in maintaining these wider possibilities for engagement which have brought so much to the debate within the field.
Seeing libraries as an investment: finally, it has been welcome, in the context of the pandemic, to see some governments at least see supporting libraries as a way of stimulating economies. Such investments, crucially, are designed not only to create jobs now, but also to create the foundations for stronger growth in future, and so repay themselves over time.
Examples have included support for stronger connectivity, enlarged collections, and building works, all of which make it easier for libraries to fulfil their mission of providing equitable access to information.
While stimulus packages will have an end date, the evidence of the recognition that investing in libraries is a way of building a stronger economy is one that will be worth working to maintain. Gathering data about the positive impact of this work, as far as possible, will help with library advocacy for years to come.