October 2020

St Helens Borough Council's Library Services is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and one of our Pathfinder organisations. The team has been telling us about their experiences adjusting to these unprecedented circumstances, what their COVID-19 response strategies are, and how they are playing out. St Helens Borough Council Library Service's five-point Community Story covers:

  1. Life in Lock-down
  2. Adapting to New Approaches
  3. Considering our Comeback
  4. Data-led Decision Making
  5. Navigating the New Normal

Life in Lock-down

The main adjustments we have had to make in lock-down have, of course, been pretty similar to the rest of the sector and the country at large. That said, there are some very specific challenges that come with being a dual functionality organisation.

As a modern library service, our work encompasses everything you might expect – from the taking out of books, right through to using our computers and our spaces as a safe and comfortable meeting place – while the arts work that we deliver means that we regularly host a number of events, performances, exhibitions, installations and other arts participation activities in our library spaces. Come March 23rd (and in the weeks leading up to it, as the direction the wind was blowing became clearer) all of that activity across both service strands came to a grinding halt, but then adapted rapidly...

Adapting to New Approaches

The wider libraries team has been running events such as Read and Rhyme time successfully, through Facebook Live, since very early on in lock-down. Alef Trust, who runs our Arts on Prescription scheme - our programme aimed specifically at using creativity to improve mental health, adapted the programme to be delivered exclusively online.

We definitely didn’t want to break our long-standing tradition of participating in the Summer Reading Challenge, which we would normally kick-start by hosting a theatre show or similar for 50 or so visitors in one of our physical spaces, which are typically on the smaller side and very intimate. This year though, thanks to the necessary move online, our live-streamed production of The Twits attracted 273 sign-ups, translating to about 80 families (c.160-240 people all in) on the day itself - far more than we could ever have expected or been able to accommodate in person pre-COVID.

This online success is not the only new means of engagement that we have been exploring during lock-down though. We were very aware that people were being saturated with online content in those early stages. So we wanted to really reflect on everything else that was going on and, crucially, explore how we could reach those people that haven’t got the luxury of access to technology. Perhaps our most unique and rewarding initiative has been the launch of a letter writing exchange designed to reach out to more isolated members of the St Helens community called " Our Correspondence".

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Most participants in our pre-existing Home Delivery Service are people who, even before lock-down, tend to spend a lot of time at home and are unable to get to the library themselves, typically due to age, health or disability. We know from Audience Spectrum that a large number of the people we already engage with in that home-based way belong to the Heydays group, as opposed to just 2% of our live events attenders. In fact, 39% of our audiences come from the most deprived and the least engaged Audience Spectrum segments. It's incredibly important to us that we continue to engage and support that significant but often culturally under-served section of the community, so we began including hand written letters in their home deliveries, inviting them to write us back if they'd be keen to carry on a correspondence.

We are still in the process of getting that first wave of responses back, but everything we have received so far has spoken of overwhelming delight at finding a letter in and amongst their book pile that is especially for them. The people who have replied have expressed feelings of real connection to us and have been very glowing about the service that they get from the library in the broader sense.

Considering our Comeback

Thinking about that longer term, we would love to be able to involve those people in some sort of exhibition or other in person event in the future, when things calm down and it's safe to do so. Though of course we do not know quite what that would look like at this stage.

In terms of our NPO delivery, we (like many organisations) have no real intention of delivering any in person performances, installations, exhibitions or participation activities this side of Christmas, particularly considering how intimate our available spaces are for that kind of work. For this strand, we are continuing to adapt as best we can to an online model with a strengthened focus on supporting St Helens arts ecology and sharing local artists' work, to try to help them recover some of the income they have lost to the pandemic.

Moving forwards, we want to be able to help these artists to not just survive but thrive. This is the reason we are refreshing our database of artists who rely on arts as their income, to ensure that, when we get approached about or have an idea for a project that will require artistic collaboration, we know who to go to on our own doorstep.

Data-led Decision Making

We know from our Audience Spectrum profiling that just under 50% of our audiences come from the Facebook Families and Trips and Treats segments alone - vital information when we're considering how to compile and market our family offers, especially in current circumstances. Understanding our dominant Audience Spectrum segments' likely behaviours and expectations is more important than ever when you are not getting the kind of raw visual feedback that you are used to from observing a live audience's responses. Knowing that our audience is prepared to engage readily on their devices, even if they are not desktop computer owners, makes certain channels - for example, Facebook Live, as mentioned - a no-brainer for us as part of an audience engagement strategy.

We will be utilising the new Digital Audience Survey and will be combining those findings moving forwards with those from a bespoke survey that we are planning to send to all of our previous event bookers, asking them what (if anything!) will make them feel safe returning to our physical spaces. There is a working assumption in the sector that audience motivations for wishing to experience arts and culture are unlikely to have changed - so what we need to understand is not how to create appetite, but confidence. Not just what people need to return, but the whys and whens of how that willingness might start to be rebuilt.

Navigating the New Normal

Arts Council England has been brilliant in supporting the sector as much as possible with a full understanding across the board that the ‘arts’ this year, cannot operate as they previously have done. Thanks to ACE, we have new opportunities to be creative in different ways, adapting our processes and commissions to allow us to live primarily online for the time being.

We are in a unique position at the moment, in that we have opened the brand new St Helens Library to the public, bringing with it a whole new set of challenges, particularly as it is in a shared building with a museum onsite. We have also re-opened four existing libraries, along with the Archive Service.

Making these buildings as COVID-secure as they can be has involved many of the practices now commonplace across the country: of limiting visitor numbers, establishing through-flow, encouraging mask wearing etc. All that means that people's experience returning to libraries at the moment is going to be very different - and in some ways quite opposite - to what they are used to. We are, for example, quarantining returned books, actively discouraging people from congregating in groups, or browsing the shelves at length...

What is becoming the temporary 'new normal' feels very very different from the way libraries have historically operated. But hopefully the work of utilising libraries as cultural venues, that we have been at the forefront of developing, can return soon.

Interested in contributing a Community Story of your own? Download the template HERE.

If you have any questions or are ready to send over a story, please get in touch with vanny.lambert@theaudienceagency.org

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