Libraries see new online memberships soar amid lockdown

General view of books on a bookshelf Credit: Ryan Phillips/PA

New online library memberships have rocketed by up to 770% in some parts of the country, as the nation turns to books for solace during the Covid-19 outbreak.

With strict instructions to stay at home to prevent the spread of Covid-19, e-and-audio books are being increasingly sought to help soothe anxious minds, the Local Government Association (LGA) said.

Despite all council-owned library buildings closing amid the pandemic, services have seen a surge in requests for digital resources.

Hampshire County Council has seen a 770% increase in new digital users, Cornwall Council a 630% increase and Hertfordshire County Council an increase of 332%.

Hampshire libraries have seen a 23% rise in the number of e-books loaned and a 52% increase in the number reserved.

With audiobooks, they have seen a 31% increase in loans and a 20% increase in reservations.

The percentages were calculated by comparing borrowing activity on March 11, before the lockdown started, with use on March 18.

In Cornwall, e-book loans and reservations increased by 56% and 68% in the last week of March, compared to the first.

And audiobook loans and reservations increased by 27% and 23% over the same time period.

Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, chairman of the LGA’s culture, tourism and sport board, said: “The number of people registering to use digital library services across some parts of the country has rocketed.

“Council libraries provide a vital service for residents and act as community hubs in normal times.

“Their online digital contribution has now become equally important as people turn to them as a way to help pass the time at home.

“Councils are doing everything they can to protect their residents’ wellbeing during this difficult time.

“Extra funding would help libraries extend their licences and meet this growing demand.”

The LGA wants the Government to provide £5 million to help libraries increase their digital lending capacities.

They are also asking for publishers of e-materials, in the short term, to be more flexible on prices to reflect the current need.

Independent libraries which do not offer e-books also reported an increase in the number of books people have borrowed.

Melanie Duffill-Jeffs, director at Bromley House Library in Nottingham, said: “Before we closed, we gave members 48 hours’ notice so that they could take ‘as many books as they could physically carry’.

“They really did take us up on that challenge and we issued over 10 times as many as we would normally do in the same period – over 1,000 books.

“That says a lot about books being seen as an essential item in a time of crisis, alongside pasta and toilet rolls.”

Morrab Library in Penzance, Cornwall’s only independent library, lifted maximum loan restrictions so members could “stock up” ahead of the lockdown.

They lent more than a month’s worth of books in three-and-a-half days, its librarian Lisa Di Tommaso said.

She said: “We are also keeping in touch via direct mailings, and through our social media platforms, sending images for the collections, poetry, and links to useful cultural and practical sites to keep them busy.

“Library staff also directly call many of our particularly vulnerable members without access to the internet, to check on how they are.

“We feel a particular duty of care, and fondness for our membership as the vast majority are elderly, and most at risk.”

Emma Marigliano, chairwoman of the Independent Libraries Association, said: “Our libraries have certainly been working all out to continue to interact with their members and their many other users.

“And if public libraries have seen such a surge in activity during these rather strange times then I’d say this is definitive proof that a) books and reading are still lifelines for so many, and b) of claims that libraries work just as well as centres for community cohesion – which they absolutely do.”

It comes as Penguin Random House UK is distributing thousands of free books to people affected by the crisis, including families on low incomes and older people facing isolation, through the community platform Neighbourly.

The publisher hopes this will provide “mental stimulation, company and comfort at a time when people will need the power of books more than ever”.