Throughout the pandemic, being confined to the home for long periods of time played havoc with many people’s emotions and mental health.
But one demographic who particularly suffered, was, ironically, the section of the population who is already housebound.
As many non-essential services had to be temporarily suspended, people who previously relied on outside help for company and entertainment – such as the elderly and physically impaired – felt more isolated than ever.
In Dundee, the At Home Library Service, which offers home deliveries of books, audiobooks, DVDs, CDs and jigsaws, has been a lifeline for vulnerable people.
Despite life gradually getting “back to normal” for the majority of society, many of the elderly and clinically vulnerable still feel too anxious to go out.
For them, the deliveries of their favourite titles and a chat on the doorstep with the At Home Library workers is one of the highlights of their week.
Keeping the mind active
“It’s all about keeping people’s brains active,” says Neil Paterson, library and information officer at Leisure and Culture Dundee, the body behind the service.
“Reading can be so beneficial to people, but it’s not just about the books. We also offer puzzles, usually with large pieces, between 80 and 500 pieces. Among our DVDs, ones about history, nature and travel are popular. We also offer music CDs, though they are usually older albums.
“It’s a very small service in terms of staff – four. It means we get to know customers, and they get to know us.
“We recognise that, for more vulnerable people, it can be a bit disconcerting if they always get a different person at their door.
“One of the saddest things is when a customer passes away. Unfortunately we did have deaths during the pandemic, we lost 25 customers. It is emotionally difficult for the staff, but they do their very best to be sensitive to the families.
“Unfortunately, the service had to stop during the lockdowns. A lot of people really did miss it. We had people cheering and crying when we came back, they were just so delighted to see us.
“We’re a real lifeline for people, we still have customers who are refusing to go out. If you feel you could benefit from the service, whatever stage your health is at, just ask!”
The At Home Library Service, which is free, has been running for more than 30 years and has expanded over time – they now deliver on four days of the week, every three weeks.
Previously workers would go inside service users’ homes and chat, but now the deliveries are limited to the doorstep only due to concerns about the spread of Covid.
Exact time slots can’t be booked, but the staff will work with service users to identify times when they are able to come to the door to receive their deliveries.
“You don’t have to be already registered with a library, we will come to you and get you registered,” adds Neil.
“Then we’ll go through what type of books you would like, and in what format. You can get books in paperback, hardback, large print, audio books, CDs, DVDs and also jigsaws.
“You can phone up, or contact us on behalf of a friend, family member or neighbour. We’ve never turned anyone away.
“We got a lot of referrals between the two lockdowns. Almost universally, it was for people over 80.
“A lot of people think you have to be completely housebound to make use of this service, but that isn’t the case.
“It’s for people who have difficulty accessing a traditional library, for whatever reason. For example, we have users who are able to get out of the house, but can’t walk very far.
“Then there are people who can get to the library but struggle to carry books, even one or two. So they go to the library to have a chinwag and to see what books they’d like. Then they tell us, and we deliver them.
“Some people like paperbacks because they’re easier to hold, others like hardbacks because they can sit open on a table.
“We have access to all of the books in Dundee’s libraries, so we can make requests, we can ask for the bestsellers, for example. It’s all very flexible.
“We have little old ladies who like the most gruesome murder mysteries, for example!”
While many libraries in the UK are closing down or scaling back their services, Dundee’s offering, and the At Home Library Service in particular, shows no sign of slowing down.
It is worth treasuring and preserving the nation’s library services, when one takes into account that for much of humanity’s history, the concept of free, public access to books would have been unheard of – let alone for the most vulnerable.
While societies have collected texts for millennia, until the 19th Century these were only available to select scholars and the wealthy.
Public libraries didn’t come along until the 1800s, when some philanthropists and businessmen who made their fortune in industry gave money to build them.
The Scottish-born American steel baron Andrew Carnegie was one of them – he went on to give 2,500 libraries to communities in the US, Canada and the UK.
There followed a “golden era” of libraries, which went on until the 1960s but there’s been a steady decline since the advent of the internet and cheap books available to buy online.
This has meant that in order to survive, libraries have had to adapt and evolve. Most libraries in Dundee now function as community hubs, not just for reading but also for having a chat, accessing computers and social welfare services such as Citizen’s Advice or benefits information, with those hubs stationed nearby.
The At Home Library Service is just one example of the good that a library can do for the community.
A loyal customer
One of its most loyal customers is 67-year-old Alison Wallace, who has been with the service for 30 years.
She has always been a book lover, but a diagnosis of ME – chronic fatigue – at the age of 14, followed by MS in her 30s, means she can’t easily get to a library.
“I used to go (to the library) all the time with my kids when they were young, but it became quite difficult when I needed someone to take me out and it was a big loss when I was no longer able to go,” Mrs Wallace says.
“I need to use a wheelchair if I have to walk more than 10 steps. I don’t really go out unless someone comes with me, so I go out maybe twice a month.
“It’s great that the mobile library can come to me every three weeks. I’ve had problems with my sight on and off, so they brought me large print books and then audio books.
Housebound since Covid
“I’ve got to know the workers over the years. Some have retired or moved on to other jobs but it’s been great getting to know them.
“Since Covid started I’ve been out maybe five times, to the shops, and that felt like a big outing.
“I was so happy when the mobile library started coming round again. I’ve always been a big reader, I started quite young and have carried on.
“Nowadays I like crime and cosy mysteries, something with a bit of a puzzle but nothing depressing.”
A service for visually-impaired
Another service user is John McLaren, 88, from Broughty Ferry. He is registered blind and receives audio books, including Scottish crime novels by authors such as Ian Rankin, Denzil Meyrick, Alex Gray and Stuart MacBride.
“I used to get books from Broughty Ferry Library, but I can’t see very well – it’s now at the stage where I can only see big headlines,” he says.
“The mobile library gave me a loan of a CD player and three audio books. My wife also gets books from them, she has mobility problems and can’t walk without a zimmer. She gets regular books and I get audio books on CD.
“We haven’t been out much during the pandemic – we’re both 88, so we don’t want to be traipsing around too much. So the mobile library has been a huge help to us.”
Fellow service user Margaret Golden, 88, adds: “I really look forward to the book deliveries.
“I can’t walk easily and I love to read, so getting the deliveries is great.”
Anyone interested in finding out more about the At Home Library Service can email email@example.com or call 01382 431537/431528.