22 Juin 2020

Tell us how you missed us: How user testimonials are supporting library advocacy in Australia and Germany

The need to stop in-person services at many libraries has brought into stark relief how important a part of peoples lives they are, as well as highlighting the resourcefulness of libraries in finding new ways to offer services. Library associations in Australia and Germany are looking to ensure that these experiences are well documented to support future advocacy. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the world into a state of uncertainty. Faced with this, many have turned to culture and learning in order to boost wellbeing, and focus on the future.

Even while under the obligation to close their doors, libraries have shown that they have been more than ready to respond, through enhanced offers of eBooks, online events and simply the possibility to possibility to chat.

Nonetheless, it is certainly promising news that, with the lifting of restrictions, libraries are beginning – carefully – to resume in-person services. Once again, library users can borrow books, use computers, benefit from support from librarians and use other in-person services, or at least look forward to when this will be possible again.

However, with governments in many countries currently taking on major new debt in order to stimulate economies, there is also a new uncertainty – what will happen when the time comes to pay this back. The need for library advocacy will be as great as ever, in order to ensure that elected officials, the people that vote for them and other decision-makers fully understand how important it is to have a properly supported library service.

Library associations are already responding to this, ensuring that they can record and draw on users’ testimonials from the time of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to make the case.

The Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) was already active before libraries started to open again, preparing a set of campaign materials around the theme of ‘We’re Back’ with a launch on 13 May. As well as posters, banners, bunting and a template press release for local media, ALIA also worked to find a way to gather information from users about the value of libraries – ‘Tell us how you missed us’.

This looked to bring together many of the stories that librarians themselves had heard throughout the crisis, both positive ones about how much virtual storytimes and online resources provided by libraries had provided a lifeline, but also the negative ones about those people who were unable to access the internet while the library was closed.

Through both a simple online survey, and flyers where users can write in their answers, the campaign has proved a great way of gathering statements from users about what they have missed, and what they love about libraries. These will provide a rich source of evidence for advocacy when it is time for decisions about funding in future. Libraries themselves are already promoting results at the local level using the #MissedMyLibrary hashtag.

This work has already yielded powerful quantitative information. On the basis of 500 responses, it was already possible on 28 May to release findings underlining how important libraries are in combatting loneliness – a key concern in many societies. ALIA has also had a big success in reaching out into the local press with a story highlighting the role of libraries in getting people back on their feet, as well as radio interviews.

In North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), Germany, there has been a similar reflection. From people sitting on the steps of the library in order to access WiFi, to big increases in the number of people looking to access digital library collections, it became clear to the NRW Library Association that despite the need to close the doors, libraries had become more rather than less important in the lives of users.

Yet the association was also aware of the risk of pressure on funding in future, with it being only ten years since there was the need to defend budgets in the face of the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis. Once again, it would be vital to show the value of libraries to decision-makers, with the most effective spokespeople for libraries being users themselves. Trying to use social media platforms (Twitter, Instagram) for this goal was an experiment and first step in this direction.

The goal was therefore again to collect viewpoints that could be used to convince politicians. The NRW association decided to focus effort on gathering existing testimonials on Facebook. With many libraries in the regional already active on social media, there was in fact already a wealth of material to use!

The Association has therefore worked with libraries in the region to collect powerful quotes, and to promote these, using the #DankeBibliothek (Thank You Library) hashtag. In doing this, they are targeting key politicians in order to ensure they understand how much people value their libraries.

The experience of libraries and their users in Australia and North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany are not unique. Around the world, it is the case that libraries have shown resilience and resourcefulness in moving to digital service provision. It is also clear that many people have badly missed in-person services during periods of lock-down.

In both cases, there is scope for libraries and library associations to record the experiences and testimonials of users, not only as an archive of the times we are living through, but as a powerful tool for future advocacy. The work of ALIA and the NRW Library Association provide a great example of how to do this.

Advocacy, Australia, Germany, COVID-19

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