Like all arts, culture and heritage sectors, Libraries and Literature have faced enormous challenges in the time of COVID-19. The most obvious is, of course, the impact of lockdown, with restrictions reducing or preventing attendance at libraries, festivals and events...
- 38% of surveyed 'audiences' attended a library in the year before March 2020, only 10% have since.
- 17% attended an event connected with books and writing in the year before March 2020, only 4% have since.
But the picture is more much complicated than just looking at attendance drops...
Whilst continuing to play a vital community role through the crisis, libraries have faced serious and singular challenges in the face of COVID-19. Libraries Connected have talked about the financial ‘triple whammy' of:
- budget reductions,
- loss of earned income,
- and the increased costs of running Covid-secure services.
Add to that our own research's observed ‘triple whammy’ of user impacts:
- those who most need digital inclusion services are least likely to be able to access them remotely,
- a user-base that comes disproportionately from age, ethnic and social groups especially hard hit by COVID,
- and being less able to lend books, at a point when reading for pleasure is having an unusual boom.
While limitations in terms of access to Wifi and certain devices do risk disenfranchising exactly the kind of audiences who are most reliant upon libraries, phones are a bit of another story. Throughout the crisis, libraries have taken to social media to start engaging with their communities in new ways that were historically outside of their professional experience. Undeterred, we have seen libraries share their archives to generate community conversations on Twitter, deliver programmes of short craft or storytime sessions over Instagram, even post video tours of their buildings on Facebook. Many are continuing this activity now they are able to reopen their doors. Libraries and their staff – many of whom have been seconded into Local Authorities’ front line services – have continued to find ways to reach out to their communities.
The in-person experience as we know it may no longer be an option – and apprehensions here are particularly high amongst library users given their age, ethnic and social make-up – but libraries have done well at flagging up their free e-book and click and collect services, still managing to provide that personal touch that is important to the users who rely so heavily on library services for interaction. All of this reflects how uniquely embedded libraries are in the communities they serve, and how creative they have been in finding ways to continue to fulfil their needs.
When we say 'literature' in the context of audiences, we would historically have been talking specifically about live, in-person literature-led events. Thanks to COVID-19, this is of course no longer the case, but there are benefits to the new approaches organisations have had to adopt instead.
In fact, many literary festivals, by virtue of switching to online events during the pandemic, saw far higher total audience numbers, as well as upskilling to use new platforms that will likely have positive long-term impacts on their operating models. The switch to online has also highlighted the importance of the unique contextual value that a festival or event brings, whether in format, reputation, or audience. Why else watch that particular digital reading or talk, rather than another by the same writer elsewhere?
The mix of who is engaging has also changed. Overall, only 4% of surveyed audiences attended ‘events connected with books and writing’ between March 2020 and February 2021, but this picture varied significantly between demographics:
- attendance was 8% among Londoners and generally higher for urban-based Audience Spectrum segments (10% of Metroculturals, 8% of Kaleidoscope Creativity, 7% of Experience Seekers).
- but it was only 1% for over 65s (rather than 7% in the year before).
At the same time, reading for pleasure has had a mini-boom (see our pre-pandemic view for a bit of background). The proportion who’d read for pleasure rose from 48% in the 12 months prior to March 2020, to 63% subsequently. Notably, the number of people reading for pleasure has actually risen for all Audience Spectrum groups, ethnicities and ages (especially the over 45s). The only people who said that they hadn’t been reading more were, understandably, the 12% who reported having less free time as a result of the pandemic.
As restrictions continue to ease, this reading boom paints a publishing picture that is far less gloomy than it looked at the start of the lockdown period with bookshops closed, book launches postponed and cancelled, and a major wholesaler (Bertram’s) going out of business. E-books have rallied, after years of declines and hard-copy sales picked up after a painful early-year slump.
It’s a different story when it comes to writing. The proportion who had written stories, poetry, plays or created music was down from 12% to 8% in the same period, suggesting that the creative flurry seen at the beginning of the first lockdown didn’t persist as the year went on. That said, writing organisations themselves have found characteristic creativity in developing new ways to flourish and we hope to see these efforts continue to succeed through the crisis and beyond.