The changing world of public libraries in the pandemic

The experiences of library users adapting to digital lending are being explored in research at the University of Strathclyde.

The prevalence of lending digital books, which had already been increasing for a number of years, has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left them as the only option for many library members during periods of lockdown.

The study will examine changes in information behaviour, issues around the potential emergence of a ‘digital divide’ and concerns over privacy. It is being funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), under the UKRI COVID-19 Rapid Response programme.

The research will examine: the extent to which digital service use has increased in public libraries as a result of the pandemic; ways in which libraries mitigate problems with exclusion; library users’ experiences of digital services; information provided by libraries on privacy related to third party services; the accessibility and clarity of privacy policies, and library users’ awareness of privacy issues.

The researchers aim to develop a toolkit for libraries, and other public services, to use in the application of privacy policies.

The project is being led by Dr David McMenemy and Professor Ian Ruthven, both of Strathclyde’s Department of Computer & Information Sciences.

Dr McMenemy said: “There has been a significant departure from the traditional experience of libraries and this raises important issues around privacy, digital equity and information behaviour that we will be aiming to understand in this project.

“Everyone has a statutory right to a library but with the pandemic, there has been a compelled move to digital borrowing and lending. Where you once simply visited a library, browsed and left with a book, you now have to visit a library website, download an app, log into a third-party vendor’s service, agree to their privacy policy and navigate their interface to download content.

“The issues we are examining are a microcosm of what is happening in other areas, not only in the public sector but the private and third sectors as well.”

The researchers will be gathering information for the project through various sources, including Freedom of Information requests, online focus groups, analysis of library websites and a national survey by a market research company.

website for the project has been established.