“The library is closed to the public until further notice.” Messages like this have been posted on the doors and gates of public libraries across the world as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, and public librarians have joined the millions of people forced to stay at home by lockdown measures.
But lockdowns and restrictions on movement and group activities have not stopped public libraries from serving their communities. In April, we reached out to EIFL Public Library Innovation Programme (EIFL-PLIP) grantee libraries, innovation award winners and participants in the Initiative for Young African Library Innovators (IYALI) to find out what they were doing during the crisis.
We found out that they are as active as ever - using digital technology in innovative ways to support health workers and public health campaigns, to provide communities with life-saving information, to help minimize the disruption to people’s lives by continuing education and training services for children, youth and adults, and - importantly - to keep connected with people who are lonely and fearful.
Public libraries in Europe
In Lithuania, public libraries that have 3D printers that they normally use in digital skills and creative workshops for children and youth, are using them in the fight against the coronavirus. All our Lithuanian grantees have joined a national initiative of public libraries to print the medical face shields that protect doctors and nurses treating infected people. They are busily printing plastic masks and distributing them to hospitals. We also heard that our Serbian grantee, Jagodina ‘Radislav Nikcevic’ Public Library, is printing medical face shields for their local hospital in Jagodina.
One way of becoming infected with the coronavirus is by touching surfaces of everyday objects such as door handles. EIFL Public Library Innovation Award winner ‘Kaunas V. Kudirkos’ City Library in Lithuania is using their 3D printer to make hands-free door handles, and distributing them to local shops. The door handles attracted international attention - you can see them in action on Euronews.
Many seniors are struggling with isolation and loneliness as family and friends have been advised to stay away. “Individual consultations for seniors on searching for information on the internet and using electronic services are not interrupted - they will be provided by telephone every day on weekdays.” This notice on the library’s website alerts seniors that EIFL grantee, Utena ‘A. & M. Miškiniai’ Public Library in Lithuania, is continuing its internet search service. Before the lockdown, seniors would come to the library for one-to-one consultations with librarians.
With schools closed, the Lithuanian Ministry of Education, Science and Sport had to transfer learning online. However, some 35,000 families do not have home computers or internet connections. The National Library of Lithuania has helped by lending the Ministry over 3,000 newly-purchased laptops originally intended to be given to public libraries. The laptops are being distributed to children.
Parents who are working from home often struggle to keep their children occupied. EIFL Innovation Award winner, Šiauliai County ‘Povilas Višinkis’ Public Library in Lithuania, is providing welcome relief for parents through a weekly schedule of activities for children aged from 5 to 12. The activities are offered live on Facebook: Storytime, in which librarians read to children, takes place on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays; creative workshops are offered on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Before the lockdown in Romania, another EIFL Innovation Award winner, Pietrari Public Library, offered a fitness programme in which parents and children could come to the library for exercise classes. They have now moved the classes online and people are exercising at home. The library also has a Facebook page dedicated to fitness, weight loss and healthy living, which they are using to motivate exercisers to keep going. Reading clubs organized by Rijeka Public Library in Croatia, an EIFL grantee, are now meeting virtually, on Zoom.
Public libraries in Africa
When the buildings of the Lubuto Model Library in Lusaka, Zambia, closed because of the virus, the library continued to use its large outdoor spaces to teach children to be safe, following public health guidance on social distancing, in fun and joyful ways inspired by the children themselves. You can see the children in action here.
Lubuto Library Partners has also translated a book about the coronavirus - including great advice for staying safe - into the Zambian language, ChiTonga. It’s available to download from their website.
Another grantee in Zambia, Choma Public Library, last year formed a creative youth community. This community of creatives wrote and recorded a song in Tonga, the language most commonly used in southern Zambia, to share messages about COVID-19 and how to prevent infection - listen and learn here. The group also recorded a video with essential COVID-19-prevention advice.
Across Kenya, the Ministry of Health is screening and recording body temperatures of everyone crossing county borders to halt the spread of COVID-19. Kenya National Library Service / Voi Public Library's computer lab has become the Taita Taveta County Administration's COVID-19 Data Entry Centre, where information collected during screening is fed into the library's computers for analysis. What’s more, reports IYALI participant, Koi Kazungu, the County Administration has earmarked the library to become the County’s COVID-19 Command/Communication Centre.
Another IYALI participant from Kenya, Yusuf Ganyana, a Senior ICT Officer, is based at Kibera Public Library, which serves a slum community. “Before the pandemic we were training a group of unemployed youth in how to market their skills online. Now, so that they do not lose hope about their futures, I keep in touch through WhatsApp and boost their morale. I share with them links to skills training websites that are offering complimentary membership during the lockdown periods, and encourage my trainees to register,” said Yusuf.
EIFL's partner, the Ghana Library Authority (GhLA), which manages 10 regional and 52 public libraries across the country, has adapted existing services to meet the needs of locked down communities. For example, the GhLA is continuing with its literacy classes to improve young people’s reading and writing skills, but now they are offered live on Facebook.
In April, GhLA launched a ‘National Short Story Writing Challenge’ for children and youth: “Schools, public libraries and other places which will intellectually engage children have all been shut down. Therefore, we are launching this challenge to encourage young writers and to intellectually engage them at home,” said GhLA Executive Director, Hayford Siaw. The winning stories will be shared through the Ghana Library App, a free e-reader app developed by the GhLA that is used to browse, download and read e-books.
IYALI participant Jeff Nyoka of City of Johannesburg Libraries, South Africa, told us how they are putting extra energy into marketing their online services, using Facebook. Locked down public librarians are recording short videos on services like how to access ebooks from home, reminding learners about Google and IBM online courses, and promoting COVID-19 hygiene awareness and tips received from the municipality.
Across Namibia, public libraries are continuing to provide free public access to the internet. Namutenya Hamwaalwa, Deputy Director of the Namibia Library and Archives Service (NLAS), an EIFL partner, which manages a network of 65 public libraries, reports that all those that have WiFi have left it on 24/7 so that people living close to the libraries can use it round the clock.
Thank you to everyone who responded to our call for information. We received many more examples from EIFL-PLIP partner libraries - unfortunately, we could not include them all.