Bobby Seagull: ‘Libraries have a central role to play in a post-Covid world’

The University Challenge sensation turned teacher, author and presenter penned an exclusive piece for The Big Issue about the pivotal role libraries will play in social justice when we rebuild after the crisis

“Good evening. The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades – and this country is not alone.”

In years to come, this might form the opening of a starter-for-10 question on University Challenge asking us to name the prime minister during these challenging times.

When, on March 23, Boris Johnson took to the podium to announce a general public lockdown in response to the emerging public health emergency caused by Covid-19, libraries were probably the last thing on his mind.

And yet, almost immediately, a surprising trend started to emerge. Local authority after local authority began reporting huge increases in the number of people registering with their local library. In some places, library audiences rose by 600-700 per cent. Simply staggering.

What was driving this was a huge public appetite for reading. Not satisfied with hours in front of the telly or home-schooling the kids, thousands of people were discovering the world of free ebooks, comics, magazines and other resources on offer from their library direct to their device.

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading”. Every time we dip into our wallets to gather a tenner, these are the words that greet us under the face of author Jane Austen. While these words of Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice might be from a deceitful character who has no interest in books, there is merit in accepting the quote at face value.

There is something positive to be said about a country that places this quote on a national banknote. It attempts to reflect a simple truth universally acknowledged, that a Brit in possession of a curious mind must be in want of a book.

Britain is a nation of readers. There are 225 million visits to libraries each year, and in 2019 alone we borrowed 175 million books from the local public library. If we add in the figures for schools, prisons, hospitals and the many other types of library, it is clear we love to read!

One in two adults in the country holds a library card. Some back-of-the-envelope maths calculations suggest that if we stacked these library cards on top of each other it would form a truly gargantuan pile reaching 25.7km high. This would be three times the height of Mount Everest!

Digital exclusion is clearly still a big issue in the UK, with millions unable to afford broadband or the latest smartphone

Public libraries across the nation are starting to plan for the gradual, safe restoration of face-to-face services. But at the same time, it’s clear that digital use is going to be a major part of their future. That’s why many are thinking about the ‘new normal’ in which people are just as likely to use the local library via a browser or handheld device as they are to visit in person.

This is great, and libraries are already rising to the challenge. However, it is important that this new enthusiasm for online engagement doesn’t risk leaving people behind – particularly those in the most deprived communities.

As a school teacher, the period of home-schooling has highlighted some home truths. While studying online at home can help learners during unprecedented times like these, Covid-19 has also revealed the scale of the digital divide. Many families rely on a single mobile phone for an internet connection, which is far from ideal, to put it politely, for online learning or streaming video lessons.

Even with some schools providing laptops for the most disadvantaged students, there are still barriers in terms of parents’ IT skills and children having the actual physical space to study.

Digital exclusion is clearly still a big issue in the UK, with millions of people unable to afford home broadband or the latest smartphone. That’s why librarians are thinking carefully about balancing their newfound digital audiences with the kind of personal, caring, face-to-face service they already provide – including, for example, supporting children with homework, providing access to health information or helping people to access Universal Credit or apply for jobs.

As Nick Poole, chief executive of CILIP, the UK’s library association says, “UK public libraries have a unique role to play as we emerge from Covid-19. We provide safe and trusted physical and digital spaces for community, access and knowledge. Our aim is to redefine how people think about their local library so that everybody understands how we can help them recover, rebuild and ultimately achieve their ambitions.”

Libraries have played a significant role in transforming my life. As a child, every Saturday afternoon my father would take his four boys to the beautiful red-bricked East Ham library. We would sit there sprawled on the library carpet for hours, absorbing books on a range of topics such as the Aztec civilisation, Victorian engineering or the fiction of Roald Dahl. We then returned home, minds overflowing with wonder and a shopping trolley stuffed with books to keep us busy till the following weekend.

It was these hours of reading that inadvertently prepared me for University Challenge. From unexpectedly going viral on social media for my appearances as a captain on the quiz show, I have used that platform to become an advocate for numeracy and literacy alongside my school maths teaching. Indeed, in my second series of Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Adventures, currently airing on BBC Two, I loved leafing through pages of an original 1791 Encyclopedia Britannica in the National Library of Scotland, trying to spot any sections of the book that would now be considered scientific folly.

Even in series one of my TV show, overnighting in Gladstone’s Library in Flintshire was my highlight. Pure serendipity resulted in stumbling past the opera section and then bursting out in the Paolo Di Canio West Ham chant to the melody of Verdi’s La donna è mobile. Joy unbridled.

Libraries have been woven into my helical strands of my DNA and hence I am proud to be CILIP’s latest Library Champion, following in the footsteps of Stephen Fry and Mary Beard. It has given me an opportunity to engage with libraries and librarians all over the country and to discover how much they do to support learning and help people’s personal development.

We have to consider the role that libraries will play, particularly in terms of social justice, as being one of the few places in our high streets that are still free of charge

It has been great to see library-led initiatives like the #NationalShelfService, which features professional librarians on YouTube giving daily book recommendations for children, young people and their families.

You can get a sense of the sheer diversity of what libraries are doing from the #LibrariesFromHome web page, led by our friends at Libraries Connected. From online rhyme times for mums, dads and kids to performances, book recommendations, reading clubs and so much more – libraries certainly got creative!

“We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together”. These were words delivered by the Prime Minister in his closing paragraph for that speech announcing lockdown on March 23.

Beating it together means we have to consider the role that libraries will play, particularly in terms of social justice, as being one of the few places in our high streets that are still free of charge to the user.

I know that libraries have a central role to play in our post-Covid world. If you haven’t discovered them yet, just Google your local library service and find out what they can do for you!

The new Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Adventures is currently airing at Mondays at 9pm on BBC Two

@Bobby_Seagull

This article is part of our After the Virus series. To read other ideas about the world beyond Covid-19 from Rutger Bregman, George Clarke and more, head here