The year 2020 was challenging for everyone not just libraries. News of a pandemic started filtering through news channels at the beginning of 2020 and while our attention did heighten no real crisis planning occurred in our library service. By March the situation had worsened and in Australia, each State declared a State of Emergency and all of us were facing a crisis affecting every person across the country. Governments started acting, warnings became more frequent and all business, education and local government needed to respond to the worsening situation of an out of control pandemic.
Yarra Plenty Regional Library (YPRL) is a Corporation delivering library services to 3 member councils in Northeast Metro Melbourne, Victoria Australia. It is governed by a Board of Councillors from these member Councils, Banyule City Council, City of Whittlesea and Nillumbik Shire Council. We employ 175 people (93.3 full time equivalent) delivering library services through 9 branch libraries and 2 mobile libraries. We also have a headquarters office in a separate location which houses library corporate operations and the collections team.
Because we are an organisation separate to Council, we had to face this crisis using our own resources — both people and technology — without a larger organisation to draw on. This had some benefit as it meant we were (and are) able to be nimble with our response. The downside was that our resources are limited, and our focus needed to be quite pointed or these limited resources, of staff, technology and funds, would be squandered with minimal impact.
Were we prepared for a scenario like the one we all faced back in March 2020 when businesses were being shut down and we entered a lockdown? No.
Were we well placed to plan a response quickly, readily engage the Board and allocate staff meaningful home based work? Yes.
This is a story of a library service responding to a crisis in four parts. Part 1 is The Governance (this post) as a government corporation we must have a sound basis for our decision making and also who can make what decision. Our Communication (Part 2) in a crisis was essential, both with staff and with our communities and supporting and managing the Staff (Part 3) as another critical response to the crisis. The Work (Part 4) that we undertook also had to respond to the immediate situation our communities were facing and respond to their actual need in ever changing times.
Through March and April 2020, the Board met fortnightly and delegated the decision to close libraries to the Board Chair and the CEO. Libraries were closed to the public on March 20th 2020 when the Victorian State Government ordered non-essential businesses to close to minimise community transmission of COVID-19. The Board supported the YPRL leadership team to put in place alternative working arrangements, realigned services and budgets to deliver services in new ways and supported the Corporation to continue to work and serve the community.
The Board Chair and the CEO connected weekly via telephone to ensure he remained aware of a quickly changing environment with business requirements under the State of Emergency also changing often. Having a good relationship with the Board meant that not only could business as usual be conducted in highly unusual circumstances but also that when fast decisions needed to be made we were supported by the Board, who made themselves available for additional emergency briefings.
The leadership team consisted of the CEO, 3 executive managers and 2 managers. We started planning for the worst-case scenario (closing of all libraries and all staff working from home) in the middle of March as the situation deteriorated quickly around the country. The planning, which was done in days could be grouped under four headings– communication (internal and external); the staff; the work and the technology. We determined from the beginning that YPRL’s first consideration in planning and responding to the evolving coronavirus situation was the health and safety of staff and other people in our libraries. We also agreed that we would follow the advice and recommendations from the state and federal governments. So our COVID-19 plans, our risk plans, our return to worksite plans and eventual staff work permits were drawn up with the government required guidelines.
Covid-Safe plans were developed and all staff were trained in the safety plan requirements. A working party of Branch Managers, OH&S representatives and the CEO came together to develop safe return to work plans when it was required, including developing a complete set of PPE for each work site and ensuring it was available as per our planning and decision making criteria that the health and safety of staff was a priority. Further online training was procured for Infection Control that all staff undertook prior to returning to the workplace which did build confidence in the return to work plans.
Senior leaders were meeting more often and were part if working parties set up for our transition which meant decisions could happen quickly. Guides were also developed which allowed staff to understand what what the organsiation needed in terms of programs, blog posts, social media content and work groups. This meant they were focused and most of their proposals fitted with the direction required.
YPRL was transitioning all our technology operations to the Cloud and this enabled us to provide access to our network from people’s homes. Without this technology base the situation for staff working from home would have been very different. We did have several laptops, hotspots and iPads which could be loaned to those staff who needed it, but certainly not enough to equip every staff member with a device and Internet access. Our remote desktop required more licences which were arranged immediately the situation worsened and with our ICT team were implemented in time for the transition to a working from home environment. Those staff members with access to home devices were able to connect them safely to our network. As the situation we were facing with the pandemic and a lockdown had never been envisaged before our business continuity plans and disaster plans did not apply, though the principle of these plans did apply — continue to deliver library services to our communities safely.
We did recruit, both internally and externally, some extra resources for the ICT team to support staff to work from home and troubleshoot any issues they were having with their connections and to continue to work on the major business system changes underway.
So were we prepared for a pandemic? No.
Did we manage to respond and adapt quickly and well? Yes.
Because we did have the key requirements which enabled us to respond quickly, adapt readily and to implement new services to our community in a timely manner.
- We had the trust of our board, the ability to enact decisions quickly,
- The technology infrastructure to allow flexible delivery, and most of all,
- A dedicated library team across all levels of the business who could quickly learn, upskill and were willing to experiment to deliver their library roles in many different ways.
The new normal looks very different to where we were in January 2020 and for the next two years our focus will be on supporting our communities to recover from the effects of the pandemic. Wellness will be a priority focus, financial, social, personal and we will be working with our member councils to amplify their programs, partner with them to deliver impactful programs and deliver library orientated programs in areas such as family literacy. The way we deliver will be blended — online and small in-person programs and we will continue to curate activities and selections of our online and physical collections. We are still in and out of lockdown here in Metro Melbourne so still in crisis response. Our planning for the next year will concentrate on what we keep, what we go back to delivering and how to deliver an in-person library experience safely in the new COVID–normal world. I am sure that masks, hand sanitiser and extra cleaning will be a feature.
Will we implement scenario planning as a new way to plan for worst-case scenarios? I cannot say as we are continually adapting to the worst-case scenario now with all libraries closed and community transition of COVID-19 still occurring (though the numbers are dropping as the ongoing lockdown is working to stop the infection spreading). Our key guidelines for our response are being guided by public health experts and we follow those guidelines to implement our services and workplace controls.
One of the key advocacy benefits to come out of the two major lockdowns in Victoria has been that libraries are considered an essential service and worksites can be used to deliver a staff-less click and collect service. We have managed to implement new services, implement a new library management system and website, upskill all staff in new technology, shared project planning and be more adaptable working together and delivered a meaningful library service at this difficult time.
Key challenges for the future will be how to deliver smaller in-person events with streaming options, how to manage ticketing and how to manage our branch library spaces with people number limits — and of course the extra cleaning. Worst-case scenario planning is now embedded in our new normal and we are building greater staff capability across the organisation to respond. Maybe we could have planned it but from my point of view we have lived it and survived with our teams, our service and our mental health intact. I am forever grateful for the experience and for the wonderful library team I lead.
Adapted from Managing a Library Service in a Crisis by Jane Cowell published in Library Management, Emerald December 2020