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Impact on library users’ wellbeing
The loss of ‘sense and sensibility’ in an age of Covid-19 and digital libraries

This article offers my personal reflections on issues which arose from the recent series of webinars delivered under the auspices of the “Emerging International Voices Programme”. It focuses on the mental health and wellbeing issues faced by library patrons and staff in an age of Covid-19 and the growing emergence of digital libraries.    

By Naomi L.A Smith

Looking after our mental health is always important. However, now, in the winter months, when seasonal depression is high and in a time of Covid-19 when many are grieving over the loss of loved ones, job losses and forced isolation, it is even more necessary to maintain it.

Sustaining the emotional well-being of library users is less successful online, compared to how we supported users physically, before Covid-19.

The loss of ‘sense and sensibility’ is a concept which was coined by Katrin Schuster in the second Emerging International Voices webinar. It explains how Covid-19 has caused the loss of senses, from the reported physical symptoms of Covid-19 to the lack of human intimacy and connection caused by lockdowns and the closure of spaces which foster a sense of community, such as our libraries. For me, this loss of ‘sense and sensibility’ is an important reason why I believe sustaining the emotional well-being of library users is less successful online, compared to how we supported users physically, before Covid-19.
 
The ‘sensuality’ of traditional libraries is well illustrated by this image which was used by Marie Ostergard in the third Emerging International Voices Webinar.
The ‘Sensuality’ of traditional librariesNaomi L.A Smith
Here, one can see how the ‘sense and sensibility’ of this Danish library would have been experienced in the different library spaces. Different activities existed in different rooms which would have resulted in different atmospheres. One would have encountered diverse library patrons in this physical space with whom one could have different connections and experiences.
 
Heterogeneity can of course be replicated online.  Many libraries have been able to take advantage of major digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter social, Microsoft Teams and Zoom in order to provide different virtual activities for users, including online knitting groups, virtual book readings, activities and games for children. Activities focussing on supporting mental health have been created online too, such as ‘Pen Pals’ for lonely people. However, this raises the question of whether online activities carry the same meaning and impact as their physical alternatives. Whilst the answer is subjective, there is evidence to show that the loss of sense and sensibility does reduce its meaningfulness.
 
For instance, studies show that parents and children interact less when reading electronic books together than printed ones. They find that interactions are less frequent and, more interestingly, were of a poorer quality. Parents were more likely to discuss technology than the actual story. I can understand this ‘change in focus’, having been in many Zoom and Microsoft Team meetings where we ended up devoting a disproportionate amount of our time to addressing technological glitches, rather than focusing on the agenda.   
 
More worryingly, research shows that increased screen time can increase anxiety and depression in young people. Although I am not yet a parent, I am aware that many parents try to reduce screen time for their children; preferring them to be involved in activities that arguably contain more engagement of our ‘senses’. This can be reading physical books where they can feel and touch the paper and/or different materials which books for children usually contain, playing with games and toys, and spending time outdoors with other children.
 
Adults too are arguably more enriched by physical interactions involving sense and sensibility. Although the famous study by Albert Mehrabian and colleagues in 1967 which stated that only 7% of our communication is verbal and 93 percent non-verbal has been discredited by many, I personally prefer physical face-to-face interaction where I can note body language and expressions with more ease. Sometimes, I find engaging in online forums to be unsatisfactory. There are so many other online notifications and new information that is trying to compete for our attention. This is one reason why some people do not always enjoy using large social media platforms for interacting with others. Other factors include our growing awareness of algorithm bias, lack of data ethics, problematic monopolist nature, spread of misinformation and the digital racism which is inherent within these platforms. This loss of enjoyment is again why I am questioning whether the emotional wellbeing of library users can be met as successfully as it was pre-Covid-19, especially when so many libraries are relying heavily on these large ‘soulless’ platforms, because of their outreach abilities.
 
In the first Emerging International Voices webinar, Kate Moffat explained there is potential for some libraries to design independent, sophisticated, user-centric digital platforms for users that successfully engage with users. However, in a previous article I pointed out why data provision is not something that can easily be done by every library. As I listened to the comments made by some of my peers in Emerging International Voices and Partha Pratim Das, I was further reminded that libraries in non-Western countries are likely to face financial and other constraints in transitioning their services from physical to digital provision. They may also have to rely on existing technology like social media in order to reach their users.  
 
This brings me to highlighting the issue of the digital divide. Although like my last point, it transcends sense and sensibility, it is more evidence of why the emotional needs of our patrons are not and cannot be met as they were before Covid-19. Not every user is able to access the remote activities which libraries have been providing. Studies in America show how age, class and ethnicity prevent many from being able to access  much of the technology that some of us take for granted. Here in the UK, although digital inequalities amongst British communities have existed long before Covid-19, this pandemic is turning the problem of digital exclusion into a catastrophe of lost education and opportunity for the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable.  
 

How can we effectively support the emotional wellbeing of our users if we face the same challenge?

This disconnect aggravates mental health problems by feeding the feelings of isolation, loneliness and loss of sense and sensibility. Again, whilst some libraries have been able to offer telephone services to reach these ‘missing communities’ or have even offered free hotspots and laptops (my workplace did the latter), this is not a universal scheme. Once again, this depends on a library’s financial capacity to do so.
 
Finally, we must admit that the loss of sense and sensibility has also affected library staff. As an Assistant librarian at the University of East London, I have faced my own challenges to remote working. I can relate to a Tweet made by Dr Kawanna Bright imploring her students to recognise that her ability to concentrate and provide balanced and constructive feedback is also severely limited right now. This can apply to any library worker who is perhaps asked by management to create and deliver digital content to engage their users. How can we effectively support the emotional wellbeing of our users if we face the same challenge?
 
Although some readers may find the tone of this piece sombre, I think it is important that we consider the mental health of both our users and our colleagues, especially when Covid-19 is proving to be a long-term issue. Whilst social media platforms undoubtedly provide useful services and opportunities for new and exciting developments for libraries who are trying their best in challenging times, we need to analyse their effectiveness in promoting our pastoral role in our communities. Many of us in the library profession find the pastoral support which we provide to our patrons the most rewarding aspect of our jobs.

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