When Melbourne’s Yarra Plenty regional libraries first went into lockdown in March, shut the doors and left the remaining unborrowed books on their shelves, staff were sent home with a phone.
“One of the hardest things about lockdown was people being separated from their community,” said Lisa Dempster, Yarra Plenty’s executive manager of public participation.
“The library is often a hub for the community, and we identified the most vulnerable cohort of our community would be the elderly.”
So the library staff pulled from their database the phone number of every library member over the age of 70 – a total of 16,000 records.
Then the librarians started calling those members. All of them.
“We called them to say hi, see how they were doing, and then see if there was anything they needed help with, such as access to services, counselling support, tech help, that kind of thing. We would then refer them to a service that would help them,” said Dempster.
“What we’ve found mostly is that people are really up for the chat and love getting that call from the librarian. Some calls go for five minutes and some go for half an hour or more.”
Yarra Plenty’s “caring calls” are just one of the ways that libraries around the state have been servicing community needs since the onset of Covid-19 shutdowns.
From fine amnesties, to boosting the prominence of digital offerings, to simply putting books in the post, libraries have drastically changed the way they operate to accommodate the massive social changes imposed by governments during the pandemic, often with heartwarming results.
Early in the lockdown period, Monash Libraries supplied reading material to accompany Meals on Wheels deliveries, calling recipients in advance to ascertain their reading tastes.
Hobson’s Bay delivered guitars to households thanks to a partnership with a local organisation, Guitars Gathering Dust, which provides schools with reconditioned instruments for music students.
Many libraries have transitioned in-person services, such as daily onsite storytime sessions for babies and toddlers, to the online space. Some offer it in languages other than English too, such as Monash, where they pre-record storytime in Mandarin, Italian, Greek and Auslan.
Over at Yarra libraries there are streamed author talks in partnership with literary magazine Kill Your Darlings as part of the magazine’s long-running First Book Club.
City of Melbourne libraries, meanwhile, have been running renters’ rights and responsibilities workshops, seminars in partnership with the ATO to help people with their tax returns, and online literary salons reading Australian short stories or novel extracts aloud for adults.
“Things that we would normally do in person we’ve moved online and tried to respond to what people need,” Justine Hyde, the creative city director at the City of Melbourne told Guardian Australia.
Sometimes those needs aren’t literary at all.
“We had a social worker in the library to help identify and reach out to people who were spending time in the library who might have been homeless or victims of domestic violence,” Hyde said. “And that social worker while in lockdown has been reaching out to those regulars that we know, to keep them connected with the services they need.”
Before the ultra-restrictive stage four measures, which mean even librarians can’t be onsite, many branches were offering book bundle services and curated books parcels for pick-up or delivery.
Moreland libraries member Ri Liu told Guardian Australia she rediscovered her local library after the lockdown started.
“I was stuck at home, not currently working and feeling pretty low and looking for glimpses of positivity and hope. And I thought maybe the local library has something that can help,” Liu said. “I had really positive memories of going to local libraries as a kid, it was my happy place.”
She discovered Moreland local libraries were offering to deliver 10 books to people’s homes, so went through her reading list and reserved some online. A couple of weeks later the books arrived at her door, just before stage four lockdown.
“I was feeling pretty low that day and it was a really nice moment,” Liu said. “I see it as an essential service. Because when you’re stuck at home and you’re not able to afford books, it’s really nice to be able to access them for free. It’s one of the few things in the world that you don’t have to pay for.”
She was not the only one singing the praises of Moreland’s libraries: one patron told Guardian Australia that they received a book delivered in person pre-stage four from the Brunswick branch accompanied by a handwritten note from the librarian.
While physical books are still popular, Dempster and Hyde both said access to the online resources their libraries offer – such as borrowing of audio and e-books, free film streaming services and the like, which are available through most public libraries – had risen dramatically.
“I feel like there are a lot of hidden gems in library services that we’ve been able to promote through lockdown,” Dempster said.
The phone-banking librarians at Yarra Plenty got through to 8,000 of their 16,000 elderly members during the first lockdown. Now, with Melbourne in its fifth week of lockdown 2.0 and its harshest level yet, they’re moving through the remaining 8,000.
Librarians tend to be very engaged with their community over the long-term, Dempster said, with patrons often getting to know their librarians quite well, which means the extra outreach effort is often very welcome.
“We’ve got librarians who speak different languages, such as Greek, Italian and Chinese. So we’re really trying to reach the people who might not be connected to other modes of support,” she said.
“Our librarians have been really enjoying it. They just embraced it.”