A national survey highlights how libraries combat loneliness

City of Victor Harbor library manager Vicki Hutchinson.
City of Victor Harbor library manager Vicki Hutchinson.

Never discount the role a public library plays in communities.

The first 500 responses to a nationwide survey of library users has shown after book borrowing, social interaction has been the biggest loss felt by the community during the COVID-19 lockdown of public libraries.

The survey, run by the Australian Library and Information Association and Australian Public Library Alliance, found that while 87 per cent of respondents missed being able to borrow print books (ebooks remained available 24/7), 44 per cent missed having expert, friendly help from library staff; 40 per cent missed being around other people; 36 per cent missed participating in events and activities for adults, and 20 per cent missed taking part in storytimes with other families (although many libraries offered pre-recorded and livestreamed virtual storytimes).

CEO of the Australian Library and Information Association Sue McKerracher said the role of libraries as places of books, study and learning has always been understood, but the role of public libraries as places where people feel connected continues to emerge.

"Even before the pandemic, governments were concerned about the mental health problems linked to loneliness. These concerns have been heightened over the last three months during the lockdown. Libraries clearly have an important part to play in promoting a greater sense of belonging," Ms McKerracher said.

Some 16 per cent of respondents also missed studying in the library, and 13 per cent missed using the internet.

"Group study spaces and homework clubs are very popular with school kids and mature students and family historians also appreciate quiet study zones," she said.

"As this was an online survey, we weren't expecting a lot of people to tick using the internet, but we know that the loss of access to PCs and high speed broadband connection has caused hardship for the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our communities, including homeless people, who rely on the internet through libraries to access Centrelink, MyGov and essential health information."

One survey respondent said life was so boring when the libraries were closed.

"I need the help from the staff to guide me in the use of computers and accessing the internet, communicating with other people. It is an essential service to me as my children live far away from me. The local library is the only place where I can get help with computers," the respondent said.

Public libraries were identified as an important service that could be reopened as part of Step 1 of the National Cabinet's COVID-19 plan, when it was announced on May 8.

Ms McKerracher said it recognised the loss that was felt by people coming to terms with limited access to print books, free internet, library spaces, real world storytimes and other programs, which are so valued by communities.

"Through the pandemic, libraries have been revealed as essential services which support the health and wellbeing of the people they serve," Ms McKerracher said.

There are more than nine million registered users of Australian public libraries and more than 111 million visits to libraries each year.

More than 250,000 programs attract over seven million attendees and the cost is just under $49 per capita per annum.

This story Libraries missed when closed first appeared on The Times.

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