Despite closing their doors, libraries have been overwhelmed with demand during isolation


The doors of Melville library in Perth’s southern suburbs might have been closed for weeks, but inside the place is humming with activity as staff dart about delivering material to eager borrowers.

As libraries around the country were forced to shut their doors when isolation started, staff found novel ways to deliver services online and stay in touch with vulnerable members of the community.

Story time TV studio

Program development librarian Jo-Anne Monaghan, sits in a corner meeting room of the library — now converted into a filming studio — and says they are also having a “wonderful time”.

Since the shutdown began, she and her team have recorded 28 children’s story time sessions and 29 baby rhyme times roll out online.

“Normally we’d be doing 23 baby rhyme times and story times a week, in person, so now we are filming,” Ms Monaghan said.

Melville Library staff moved their programs to video during the shutdown.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

A few weeks ago the team decided to challenge themselves further, with a 35-minute live-streamed teddy bears’ picnic.

Bears in quarantine and live TV

It was a big operation that required a week of practice to perform their songs and lines live, as well as gathering as many bears as they could from staff and then isolating them for a few days to ensure the fur posed no risk.

“We had so much fun that within 15 minutes [of it finishing] we were already planning the next one, a pirate adventure.”

For parents and children stuck at home during the past few months, the library’s efforts have been much appreciated.

Three children crowd round a computer screen
Laura Clapsis’ kids were avid fans of the Melville online teddy bears picnic.(Supplied: Laura Clapsis)

Melville mother of three Laura Clapsis said her children had been watching the story time videos avidly each week.

“My kids know all the librarians at Melville so they’ve loved seeing them on the screen and joining in,” she said.

“My two-year-old has especially loved it and has been more engaged than when we go up to real story time.

“All three of the kids loved the teddy bears picnic. It has been watched at least three times and parts of it get repeated back to me on and off.

A table of brown paper bags with library shelves in the background
Click and collect orders ready for pick up at Melville Library,(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

Renewed love for libraries buoys staff

The renewed interest in libraries has been incredibly heartening, Ms Monaghan said.

“We have had people who had fallen off our books, they were ringing up and wanting to access our online resources again.

“In the past we have been scratching our heads thinking ‘how can we reach these people?’ — they have now come to us, so it’s been fantastic.”

Stacks of books on trolleys with the date and time they were dropped off marked.
Returned books in quarantine at Melville Library – the time of return is marked and they are left untouched for 24 hours before shelving.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

The library has been overwhelmed with demand. A mystery bag service had to be paused after one day when it received 1,000 requests, and 1,200 bags of books have now been delivered.

It’s also had to adapt to new health guidelines — returned books are placed in a chute, then held in marked trolleys for at least 24 hours before being touched, to ensure there is no risk of infection.

Borrowing of digital items doubles

The library is now offering a click and collect service, where borrowers can select from the online catalogue and pick their books from the front door, and massively expanded its online offering.

“Our collections team has put a lot of their budget into buying more e-resources, more e-books and since the lockdown we have doubled the number of e-resources borrowed — audio, movies, digital newspapers.”

Two men sit at desks, far apart, looking at computers, in a dark basement room
The State Library of WA managed to offer four digital access stations for the public.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

Over at the State Library of Western Australia, in dark, half-underground space near the back entrance, a far less colourful, but equally vital service is in operation.

Four computer stations, set far apart, that can be booked for 20 minutes at a time, are offering people who have no other way of going online a place to connect.

The service was put together within three days of the doors closing, and is carefully managed with cleaning regimes and physical distancing in place, state librarian Margaret Allen explained.

Woman stands in front of rows of library bookshelves
“We’ve been in the digital space for a long time, but this has really accelerated the services that we have delivered” — State Librarian Margaret Allen(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

“It was recognising that a number of people have no access to the internet, or very limited access,” she said.

“It’s been used as soon as it opened, just a steady stream of people, who have nowhere else to go.”

A woman sets up a digitisation station with camera and lights in a dark room
A staff member photographs items for ‘digitisation on demand’ at the state library.(Supplied: Sally Kelso, State Library of Western Australia)

Upstairs, staff are also working to ensure the researchers who rely on access to the library’s vast collections don’t have to stop work, with the launch of a ‘digitisation on demand’ service, where people can request items to be photographed or scanned and placed online.

Online services adapt rapidly

Like Melville, the state library has seen a huge surge in demand. Membership has increased by 4,000 since it closed on March 23, a record for that time period. A mystery box pick-up service had 2,000 requests in a few days.

Use of Kanopy, a free movie streaming service offered through library membership, has leapt from 207,777 minutes played in February to 449,061 in April.

A brown paper back with books stacked into it, from above
One of the thousands of mystery boxes of books the State Library of WA has given out.(ABC Radio Perth: Emma Wynne)

“We’ve been in the digital space for a long time, but this has really accelerated the services that we have delivered,” Ms Allen said.

“One of the lasting positive legacies will be looking at those services and how we continue to deliver those alongside our in-person services.”

While she doesn’t think the library will ever quite return to normal, cleaning regimes and some distancing are here to stay, she is looking forward to reopening on May 18, albeit with just 20 visitors at one time.



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