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Northern Ireland libraries offered a virtual lifeline during pandemic: ‘We do see ourselves as community hubs’

Libraries NI’s Michael Lynn chats about why there’s so much more to libraries than you’d expect


Libraries offer a range of services for consumers

Libraries offer a range of services for consumers

Getty Images/Johner RF

Libraries offer a range of services for consumers

For many, a safe space offering free journeys into new, unexplored worlds. For others, a location in which to study in peace. For the budding Matilda Wormwoods, the Jo Marshes, the Holden Caulfields and the Hermione Grangers. For everyone, the humble library.

In our Environment in Focus Week it seemed only natural to pay homage to the institutions that provide a lifeline for many — and who continued to do so throughout the series of lockdowns and while physical doors were closed.

Stephen King calls books a uniquely portable magic, and lockdown gave many a chance to catch up on their reading. It’s clear, reading the figures of the quantity of books borrowed, that Northern Ireland is a place of story lovers.

Digital services were particularly popular throughout lockdown — at the beginning of lockdown Libraries NI saw a rise of over 11,000 new eBook users between February and April 2020.

“It certainly has taken off, especially during lockdown obviously whenever libraries were closed,” says Michael Lynn, Service Development Manager for Libraries NI of digital borrowing.

“The number of eBooks we loaned during that period certainly did jump a huge amount. The year before Covid, 2019-2020 we had about 500,000 eBook loans. In 2020-2021, it jumped up to over 920,000.

“Maybe a lot of people were working from home or on furlough, or maybe people had a bit more spare time. There’s been a bit of a drop back maybe this year; I suppose many people are back to working, but our eBook offer is still above what it was in the year before Covid.”

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In 2021, Libraries NI reached one million digital loans, comprising of eBooks, eAudiobooks and eMagazines using the Overdrive and Libby apps. Last July, the service added an additional eBook and eAudiobook provider BorrowBox which further expanded its digital offering.

Through its digital services it now offers over 29,800 eBooks and eAudiobooks for adults and children, over 3,500 eNewspapers and over 3,800 eMagazines.

Comforting fiction with characters at the heart of the story were unsurprising favourites of borrowers in both 2020 and 2021. Lisa Jewell’s The Family Upstairs took the top spot of most borrowed eBook in 2020 and remained fifth in the top five last year. Jojo Moyes’ The Giver of Stars, Cecelia Ahern’s Postscript and Normal People by Sally Rooney were also in the top five for 2020, as well as Lee Child’s Blue Moon.

In fact, Jojo’s same book took fourth position in 2021.

Last year, Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, the first in his new cosy crime series, took top spot, followed by Marian Keyes’ Grown Ups and Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. Three books that would bring readers to a safe space while the world was in turmoil.

Top eAudiobooks borrowed from the digital collection in 2020 included Lisa Jewell, this time for her novel, Then She Was Gone, the fantastic Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and an epic read — and surely an epic listen — Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

Last year, both books by Lisa and Elizabeth were digital download favourites, as was Marian’s Grown Ups, the Booker winning Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist.

But nowadays, there’s a lot more to libraries now than borrowing books.

“Libraries do see themselves as community hubs,” says Michael. “We do try to offer that space that people need within communities if they want to come and browse books, if they want to engage in some of our activities, read a book, to study or use our computer facilities.

“We have 96 physical libraries across the network and they’re all different; each one has its own particular niche within the community. Some of them are big bustling libraries, like city centre libraries such as Lisburn and Belfast Central. But then you go into the smaller communities, not just rural communities, some of the smaller urban communities, and you find there is a real core of people who do use the libraries and depend on them and look forward to using them.

“There’s a wide range in terms of the services that we offer actually physically within our libraries. We’re just so glad to have the doors back open again to be able to welcome users back in again.”

And should you have any, well, outstanding debts to the library, now’s the time to return those reads.

“One of the big things that we did during this financial year was that we were able to remove the fines,” explains Michael. “If people are late with their books, we no longer charge them a fine for it. We felt that that was important.”

Libraries NI has recommenced its core activities with supplementary online events started during Covid.

“We’ve seen the benefit of those online events and we’re continuing that approach to events and activities,” explains Michael.

“The range of events and activities that we put on right across the network. We’ve got events for children in terms of school class visits and story times with Rhythm and Rhyme for mums and wee toddlers.

“We’ve got reading groups for adults, tea and newspaper clubs, Knit and Natter where groups can come together. We’ve got our digital offering as well, our Go On sessions that we run for people. They will cover all sorts of activities like scam awareness, using iPads, money saving ideas and tips, how to use WhatsApp and Zoom.”

As Michael says, ‘it’s not just about books anymore,’ the organisation is working to create something that meets the needs of everyone.

“It’s also about bringing people together socially,” he continues. “It’s about trying to combat that social isolation that there is in urban and rural communities. It’s giving people a sense of place, giving them somewhere they can come, they won’t be bothered, and do whatever it is they need to do.”

For more information on Libraries NI, see www.librariesni.org.uk

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