What do public libraries offer

Public libraries as third places and educational justice in times of Covid-19

The corona crisis has far-reaching consequences for the operation of municipal facilities across Europe. In particular, the voluntary institutions of cultural education such as public libraries, which make a contribution to educational equality beyond formal education, were closed. Public libraries had to adapt their services and offers and develop new formats. The article shows the current developments in Germany and Europe and illuminates the consequences for educational equality in cities and municipalities.

The Corona crisis has far-reaching consequences for the provision of local public services throughout Europe. This particularly applies to voluntary services within the cultural sector, which contribute to educational justice beyond formal education. Despite the easing up of lockup measures from May 2020, public libraries remained closed and had to adapt their services and develop new formats. The article analyzes the current developments in Germany and Europe and highlights the consequences for educational justice at the local level.

1 Introduction

When the coronavirus spread in Germany in March 2020, it quickly became clear that this would have far-reaching consequences for the operation of public facilities. In addition to day-care centers for children and schools, public libraries were among the first to be closed in many German states. Due to the serious restrictions on public life, they are suddenly too "empty rooms, [too] eerie icons of the pandemic"[1] become. Despite successive easing measures from May 2020, most libraries remained closed for the time being. Similar developments can also be observed in other European countries. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that the municipalities can only gradually implement the easing measures. On the other hand - and this is perhaps much more alarming - recent developments have rekindled the debate about the necessity of physical space in libraries that has been going on for many years in the wake of digitization and local financial scarcity or austerity.

Public libraries are third places of non-formal education.[2] Beyond home (first place) and school or workplace (second place) they contribute to encounters and exchanges of people. Thus they represent a central support structure for educational equality and social participation. The closure of public libraries is a problem especially for those in our society for whom their own four walls do not offer the necessary conditions for successful participation in educational processes. It is still too early to assess what social impact the spread of the Covid-19 disease will have on global developments over the next decade (s). With regard to public libraries, however, it can already be seen that Covid-19 has accelerated developments in recent years and has negative effects on social participation in public libraries.

Against the background of the question of educational equity, the article highlights the relevance of public libraries as a third place and, following considerations in the library and information sciences as well as urban, economic and educational geography, illuminates the influence of current measures on educational equity in the Municipalities have.

2 Development of city libraries in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic

At the beginning of March 2020, as part of the measures to counter the spread of the corona virus across Europe, library buildings were closed to the public.[3] The European non-governmental organization NAPLE (National Authorities on Public Libraries in Europe) then published a report on the current measures on April 30th.[4] The report shows that developments in the 20 member countries are similar and that local politics are faced with the same challenges. The three most important developments are summarized below:

(1) The closure of much of the physical facilities of public libraries in Europe was one of the first steps in government containment strategies.[5] Since then, the focus of the services has been on expanding digital offerings (see point 2). The return to the model of the open library as a physical place that can be visited is a major challenge. The possibilities of opening depend heavily on the local conditions (space capacity, personnel situation, etc.) and the security concepts of the municipalities or the municipal library services from. Since the local library landscape in many large cities consists of several library facilities that form a common network, there are usually individual public libraries again, at least in the larger cities, that offer services on site. However, these services are greatly reduced, for example to the handing in and lending of analog media such as books, CDs, etc. In many municipalities, new services are being set up for the contactless return and lending of physical library materials (Fig. 1).[6] For people who belong to the risk groups, there is also the option of using a book delivery service in some municipalities. These new infrastructures cause unforeseen costs for media and technology, personnel and digital security, for which additional funds must be made available in the municipal budgets.

Fig. 1

Opening of the new drop-off and pick-up station of the central library in Bonn in May 2020 (Photo: Britta Klagge)

(2) Second, the suspension of physical access to public libraries goes hand in hand with the further expansion of digital services and the increased use of social media as a platform for public relations work.[7] In the course of digitization, libraries have to struggle again and again with the problem of the visibility of their offers and employees have to ask themselves how they (can) reach users. Over the past two decades, you have worked successfully in many places on the development of new content and formats, with investments in attractive architecture and interior design as well as in modern technologies, media offerings and an extensive and varied program of events and courses increasing the visibility of public libraries. Since physical lending is currently only possible to a limited extent, the (further) development of online services is being relied on more than ever, and since March 2020 there has also been a sharp increase in user acceptance. A number of changed framework conditions have contributed to this, for example online lending of electronic media (e-books, e-magazines, etc.) via our own platforms[8] easing restrictions on access to digital content (free use or lowering barriers) and increasing licenses. Added to this is the development of our own streaming services (for films, series or for live streaming of events) and completely new multimedia content (e.g. video tutorials,[9] Podcasts,[10] Online language courses, digital storytelling workshops, gaming offers or book recommendations on YouTube[11]). In the recently published special issue Libraries of the magazine for media, marketing & communication Deeg describes the associated change from libraries to more service and customer orientation (instead of inventory orientation). Libraries are thus becoming developers of special offers and events themselves just To lend media.[12] In order to continue to make information about cultural and support offers available to users, websites, mailing lists and social media are also used in times of Corona. Even if libraries have been active in the field of social media for more than 10 years, platforms such as Facebook or Twitter are becoming the most important (most) medium for exchanging information with users due to the corona crisis - on the one hand, to reach users at all, and on the other hand, to increase the visibility of the library as a public institution.[13] It is interesting that during the Corona lockdown in some small communities, public libraries were or are often the only remaining cultural and educational institutions that can be reached online. The responsible municipalities use the online presence of the public libraries in a targeted manner to address the population and to provide them with secure information on developments relating to Covid-19. Of particular relevance, especially in connection with Fake news (e.g. on Covid-19), imparting media skills through public libraries is a task to which the libraries devote themselves to very different degrees of intensity.

(3) Thirdly, in the course of the Corona developments, the working world of library employees is changing considerably. This is also evident in everyday library work.[14] Most of the staff in public libraries suddenly have to work from home and develop innovative ideas from there. Where work on site is possible, plans are developed taking into account the applicable corona protection regulations to allow some of the employees to work in the libraries again and to offer offers on site as part of a gradual opening (Fig. 2), for example in shifts .[15] While there have so far only been a few cuts in staff in Europe (e.g. in Finland due to the non-renewal of fixed-term contracts), in some countries (including SE, NO, FR, IE, GB, DE) the withdrawal of library staff from the Library work to other Covid-19 related activities reported.[16] In England and Germany, for example, these employees are used to support the health authorities in isolating and caring for people at risk, or to take over telephone services for local authorities.[17] Against this background, parts of the workforce are concerned that some of the staff could be lost in this way as a result of the Corona crisis.[18] This concern is justified insofar as these measures correspond to developments that have been observed for a long time in the context of local financial shortages and the increased need for cost efficiency.[19] In order to reduce their costs, libraries are also increasingly dependent on cooperation with one another and with other institutions in the fields of education and health.[20] In addition to sharing resources, services and tasks, they are also increasingly relying on the sharing of personnel.[21] With regard to the consequences of the Corona crisis, it remains to be seen to what extent these developments will lead to staff cuts.

Fig. 2

City library in Lohr am Main in June 2020 (Photo: Britta Klagge)

3 public libraries as third places

In view of the challenges described in the area of ​​tension between digitization and municipal austerity, public libraries have intensified their work in recent decades to make their offers more visible and to strengthen their image and their role as third places.[22] The concept of the third place goes back to the concepts of third space and thirdspace of Bhabha[23] and soy.[24] What is meant is a space that, thanks to its openness, enables people to meet regardless of their private or professional contexts and the roles and privileges associated with them. A further development of the concept of thirdspace with the meaning of place (specific location) is offered by the urban sociologist Oldenburg. He understands thirdplace as a public place outside of one's own home (firstplace) as well as the place where wage labor or school or training takes place (secondplace). A neutral encounter between strangers is only possible in such a place, which is easily accessible to all people and enables communication and collaborative work.[25] Only there can the feeling of social participation and change arise.[26]

In the style of Aabø and Audunson and Elmborg, public libraries can also be understood as third meeting places - both for encounters with literature, technology and 'new' media as well as for encounters with people.[27] They are not just a lending station, but also social meeting points and places of communication in the district - and thus places to 'be in society' and also to participate in public life. With public libraries, municipalities also offer their residents a publicly accessible space that is non-commercial and creates low-threshold educational and cultural offers. In many cities, in the course of digitization, the library has also developed into a place that strengthens the networking among users and at the same time promotes a culture of doing things yourself and doing it yourself in the sense of the DIY / DIT movement (s).[28]

Through their public mandate, public libraries address these offers to the entire population, regardless of their income and origin, and thus also to low-income or vulnerable population groups. These include, for example, refugees or homeless people who can find access to the local education system here, as well as single parents and their children, who are particularly stressed in the Corona crisis. Public libraries thus complement child, youth and adult education facilities[29] and serve the educational equality and the creation of equal living conditions.[30] With regard to social participation, public libraries can be viewed as places with a kind of start-up infrastructure where people (can) seek help. The services that libraries offer their users are diverse and range from printing services to assistance in finding jobs, contact points in the city administration or in researching homework for school or university. In the course of the transfer of ever new tasks to libraries since the 1970s and in the context of digitization or the influx of refugees - for example event organization, social library work and language courses for refugees - they are also the contact point for people with problems of all kinds and a non-commercial location . "[F] or connecting vulnerable people to mainstream society"[31] Public libraries and their physical presence and accessibility therefore play an important role, especially in disadvantaged city quarters and diverse neighborhoods.

4 Educational Justice and Third Places

After just a few weeks of teaching children in their own four walls, it became clear that the Corona crisis is intensifying existing educational inequalities and that educational success depends more than ever on social origin.[32] The concept of fairness in education, which has been contested at least since the first PISA studies at the beginning of the 2000s, plays a central role in the assessment of the effects of the corona crisis, because education moves "in the field of tension between fairness of distribution, participation and recognition"[33] and is considered to be one of the most important "vehicles for improving opportunities"[34] on the labor market and for participation in society. The learning atmosphere and the targeted support of learning processes in non-formal places of (cultural) education are particularly emphasized as influences on the learning success.[35]

While education and culture are often mapped separately in local administration - libraries as cultural institutions do not belong to formal education and the corresponding department - the areas can hardly be separated from one another in practice. Cultural institutions open up access to educational processes and vice versa. At the local level, non-formal educational venues such as public libraries offer central support structures, especially for those for whom formal learning venues are insufficient. Based on the differentiation of educational spaces according to their function for lifelong learning[36] Public places are even decisive for the creation of equal opportunities, because only there encounters take place outside of one's own family contexts of origin (Tab. 1).[37]

Tab. 1

Four pillar model of lifelong learning

pillarEducation rooms and locationsMain task / primary goal
Learning to benon-formalPrivacy (firstplace)Self-efficacy, solidarity, social skills, aesthetics
Learning to knowformallySchool (secondplace)formal learning
Learning to donon-formalWorkplace (secondplace)Acquisition of higher qualifications and competencies
Learning to live togethernon-formalPublic places (thirdplace)Support of learning skills, understanding of other people and contexts, learning of social skills, experience of social participation and democracy

Own compilation based on the concept of third place based on Eckert and Tippelt

Despite all the debates about the possibilities of expanding digital offerings from libraries, analog third-party locations are also important where people can meet, meet and exchange ideas.[38] Public libraries impart reading, learning, research and media skills, the understanding of other people, experiences and contexts and enable the learning of social skills. In doing so, you make a contribution to concrete educational processes and to the experience of social participation and democracy. The importance of these social functions of public libraries has even increased in connection with the questions of digital participation in recent years. The discussion about a right to digital participation as a service of general interest is therefore also being conducted intensively at the federal level. It is explicitly emphasized that the German Basic Law contains a digital dimension, insofar as access to digital infrastructures and participation in the further development of information technology are now central elements of participation in society in general.[39]

5 Risk of losing third places

Public libraries are public services institutions. Despite the importance of public services for reducing social inequalities, investments in this area in Germany have declined over the past 15 years.[40] This is particularly true at the municipal level, where a large part of the services of general interest is provided.[41] Since the early 2000s, net investment has even become negative here, and "a particularly rigid form of austerity policy has been pursued"[42], which is also described in (geographical) scientific literature as communal or urban austerity.[43] Heinz describes the implementation of “new budget consolidation programs” as a result of this development. The cutbacks of the last two decades have mainly suffered from voluntary services by municipalities, i. H. their cultural and leisure facilities. In contrast to places of formal education, these are not compulsory and are particularly under pressure.[44]

Public libraries are also affected by austerity programs in many places. As a result, they work more efficiently and cost-effectively and, in particular, reduce attendance services and opening times.[45] In addition, decentralized facilities are being thinned out or even closed in favor of centralized facilities, and voluntary support is increasingly being used.[46] On the one hand, this leads to an activation of the neighborhood; on the other hand, it relinquishes public responsibility. The supply available in physical locations is reduced in relation to the area, more sporadic in terms of temporal availability and overall less systematic and reliable. The permanent supply in the sense of a public service of general interest aimed at compensating for educational inequalities was already in danger before the changes triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Corona crisis has now washed the challenges for public libraries of recent years to the surface and threatens to exacerbate the situation of educational justice in the municipalities in the following three points:

  • The switch to online offers and the development of your own offers require financial resources to expand the digital infrastructure. There are libraries in Competition with institutions of formal education (especially schools) that have the same challenge.

  • Since social interaction between people can only be shifted to digital to a very limited extent, the restriction to digital offers means that a large part of the social offer (personal help, reading afternoons and other events, etc.) cannot be implemented in the districts. The municipalities are instead going back to the counter library model and the Importance of the third place and its social functionswhich have been emphasized and promoted over the years by those responsible in cultural policy and administration as well as in the libraries, move thereby into the background.

  • However, when the physical third place falls away, the responsibility becomes for educationshifted further into the private sphere and worsened social and regional disparities. The teaching of reading, research and media skills as well as social skills cannot be taken over by most parents; in particular, it does not work equally well for all students under unequal conditions (with regard to technical equipment, family resources). Adults are also affected by the measures. Although new users are addressed through creative formats and free offers, it is not known and is questionable to what extent 'digital fringe groups' can (can) be reached. This benefits high-income groups, people with a digital affinity and younger age groups.

The discussion about the possible negative consequences of the containment measures during the Corona crisis on public libraries is additionally fueled by the debate about the financial consequences of the recession triggered by the Corona crisis. The tax estimate by the Federal Ministry of Finance from May 2020 assumes that tax revenues in 2020 will be almost 100 billion euros lower than in 2019.[47] In addition, high debts are taken on both at the federal level and at the level of the federal states and municipalities in order to compensate for the corona consequences with the borrowed money. This means that the municipalities will have even less financial leeway in the coming years. It can be assumed that this in turn will have negative effects on investments in public infrastructure and that a new phase of savings will primarily affect voluntary services such as public libraries.

6 Conclusion

Despite all the digital offers, the social functions of public libraries and the associated physical locations are of great importance for social participation and educational justice in our cities and communities. This is especially true for those parts of the population who do not have a corresponding private digital and social infrastructure in their everyday life. Against the background of the corona-related closure of libraries, the debate about the necessity of physical space, which has been going on for two decades, is picking up speed again. In the field of tension between digitization and local financial scarcity, the crisis has been accelerating developments that have been observed for a long time. The third location, which has been much praised in recent years, seems to be taking a back seat in view of the Corona crisis and the library as a physical location is again being reduced to lending media. While public libraries can partially absorb their educational mandate through digital services, the physical meeting place can only be replaced to a very limited extent. The focus on online offers threatens the guarantee of their social functions. This risk increases above all because libraries are part of the voluntary services of the municipalities and, in the course of the municipal financial shortage, savings potentials have been identified and reduced models have been tested for years. This danger can only be countered through new creative library concepts that make the physical space of the library accessible under the conditions of an ongoing corona pandemic (or similar events, i.e. with distance rules, disinfection, tracking) and keep it as a lively place. Examples of this have so far mainly been found in the city libraries of large cities (central library in Cologne), which have sufficiently large rooms and can carry out events at a distance.


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