Recently I attended the online symposium Loneliness in the Digital Age presented by the Academy of the Social Sciences of Australia. What I learnt from the experts discussing loneliness in today’s societies is that it affects all age groups. For young people the findings are that the more digitally connected they are the loneliest they are. And for older people, their health, their mental faculities and their lifespan decreases if they are not socially connected. For those experiencing loneliness there is shame, a loss of social skills and conversation skills and more isolation occurs.
In my library service’s communities we have been in lockdown for over eight weeks. It is a hard lockdown with a curfew, only four reasons to be outside and a time limit of one hour per day to be outside your home. Only essential workers can go to work with most workers, who are still employed, working from home. Those who live alone, see no-one in person except for the supermarket if they shop in person and not online and for families they are only interacting with themselves. The good news is that the infection rate is falling and we are now slowly coming out of lockdown with shops and services opening up safely. The more worrying news is the effect the lockdown has had on people within the community.
Below are the findings of the impact on people from the pandemic in one of these communities.
In the United Kingdom, there is a Campaign to end Loneliness. Presented in this campaign are research findings, health impacts and a drive to partner with community organisations and libraries to alleviate loneliness in local communities.
Public Library staff have long believed that just by being open we allievate loneliness, promote social connection and are a safe community meeting place for families, seniors and young people. In Australia the Australian Library and Information Association conducted a nation wide survey of library users which found that, after book borrowing, social interaction was the biggest loss felt by the community during the COVID-19 lockdown of public libraries. This was certainly what my library found when we instigated the Caring Call project to check in with our senior members and connect them to our digital library. All were missing the social aspects of the library as well as the access to books and activities. The Library formed an integral piece of the social fabric of their lives.
Libraries are ideally placed to combat loneliness in communities. Libraries are close to their communities and are a place where you can stay for as long as you want — alone with others. There is often lots to do in a library. Affordable access to technology, opportunities to find new interests and access to many resources to make the time spent alone more bearable. It is also a place where you can smile and say hello to strangers and converse with library staff with ease.
With the social isolation required to manage COVID-19 many more of our communities are feeling disconnected and alone. Libraries need to develop some direct interventions to increase connections between people and coax people to engage with other meaningfully. In every event, workshop online or face to face Library staff need to intentionally make time for the audience to meet each other. Make it fun. Learn some ice breaking techniques. It can even be anonymous — introduce yourself with your gangster name : Your first name is the color of your top and your surname is the last thing you ate. Hello, my name is Black Banana!
Effective interventions are group based aimed at targeted audiences with shared interests. Having a learning outcome — something to do — also helps to break down some barriers and encourage participants to interact with each other. Empower the group to organise their own meet-ups in the library and to develop the group in their way. And remember one size does not fit all groups.
More research into Australian Libraries and socialisation outcomes needs to be undertaken so that Libraries can build effective interventions that work locally and build evidence of the role that libraries play in public health and community wellbeing. Certainly social connection activities will form an essential component of the COVID-19 recovery planning of all communities. Libraries are ideally positioned to take a lead role in this recovery plan.
My tips for libraries to become more effective in connecting people are:
- Be Intentional — build the opportunity to meet people into every event, group, storytime that we do.
- Build staff skills sets — use icebreakers, learn proven techniques to bring groups together and socialise. Help them move from expert to a facilitator of the group, building a co-design mindset.
- Curate Library resources for home activities - our library skills are ideal for building activities connected to our resources. The Stay at Home Film Festival with a curated list of films from our streaming services is one example. Another is a Weekend of Wellness.
- Create Meetups — events around areas of interest that are expressly organised to meet others. This could be in partneship with community members, community organisations or health organisations.