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Close libraries now, plead library chiefs as 'terrified' London staff walk out | Books


Librarians in south London staged a walkout on Friday over fears for their health during the coronavirus pandemic as leaders of the sector called for library closures to be mandated by the government and not left to local councils.

Staff in Lambeth walked out of branches on Friday afternoon, citing section 44 of the Employment Rights Act, which gives employees the right to withdraw from unsafe workplaces. They said they had been given no hand gel, no gloves, and limited access to hand-washing facilities, according to the trade union Unison.

By Friday evening, all Lambeth libraries were closed.

Around the UK, more than 80% of library services have now shut, according to website Public Libraries News, despite the fact that the government is leaving decisions on closure up to individual councils.

Ian Anstice, a librarian who runs the site, said: “The situation has gone from all libraries open [last] Monday to a big majority closed just a week later. But there has been no directive from government to close, which means that each authority has had to take the very difficult decision by themselves. I have received reports of chief librarians pleading for libraries to be closed and being told no by councillors.”

Anstice said he had also been contacted by frontline staff in branches that remain open “who are terrified by the contamination risks and report that the public are ignoring social distancing guidelines”.

“The staff at Lambeth walked out over the health fears and I have been told another service only avoided the same fate on Saturday by closing quickly,” said Anstice. The lack of clear government instructions was, he said, was “no way to treat a national service with hundreds of millions of visitors per year, many of who are old and vulnerable”.

Libraries Connected, formerly the Society of Chief Librarians, a charity that supports public libraries, has written to the government asking for library closures to be mandated. “Many are still operating in a situation that is increasingly confused and alarming for library staff and their communities and puts both groups at risk of infection. This situation will worsen if children, who are not in school, begin to use their local libraries to access computers and other learning resources,” says the letter, signed by the charity’s chief executive, Isobel Hunter, and its president, Mark Freeman.

Hunter said those libraries that have closed are now exploring how to run home library services. “Some have started doing regular phone calls to the more vulnerable library users, and they’re looking at online service delivery, with e-membership surging by 700% over the last week. They’re also looking at doing storytimes online.”

Hunter estimates that around 30 library services in Britain have at least some branches open. “Libraries by their nature are open, welcoming and very relaxed spaces, but they have a significant number of visitors who may be in high-risk health groups.” Librarians were being left in a difficult situation trying to serve the community while maintaining safe environments, she said.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said in response to Hunter’s letter that it was right for councils to make their own decisions about library closures. “We know that some councils have decided that they need to close their physical library buildings, and that is fine,” it said. “However, we know that libraries can play a number of roles in the community. Therefore we wanted to ensure councils retained discretion to keep libraries open, albeit operating differently given government social distancing advice, where they felt that services could remain beneficial and be delivered safely.”



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