There is still no definitive date for York's libraries to re-open. but during lockdown, Explore York has been able to reinvent itself as an online library service with a whole host of offerings, finds STEPHEN LEWIS

THERE are many things we've all been missing during lockdown: a meal out; a pint with friends at the local; catching the latest film at one of York's many cinemas; live music, theatre and sport (whether playing or watching)...

But for book lovers - and all those who like to get together in a quiet, creative space - one of the toughest things to get used to has been the closure of all York's 14 libraries and reading cafés.

So does this week's partial relaxation of lockdown measures mean that the day when York's libraries can re-open has come a bit nearer?

Well, perhaps. The latest government advice is that libraries might be able to re-open on July 4.

Don't take this as gospel, however. Thanks to the government advice, at least libraries now have something to aim for, says Explore York chief executive Fiona Williams.

But reopening all the city's libraries safely will be a huge job - one that will involve careful social distancing measures, perhaps a limit on numbers, the possible wearing of PPE by library staff, and very likely a phased approach to opening.

There is also the question of when and how the library cafés - such an important part of the vibe of York's libraries these days - will be able to start up again.

"So we have no definite date for reopening at the moment," Fiona says. "We cannot just throw open the doors one day and say 'we're back'."

Nevertheless, library staff - those who have not been placed on furlough, at least - are beginning to work towards reopening.

One possibility suggested by the government is an initial 'click and collect' service, where library members can order a book online or by telephone and arrange to collect it at a certain time, Fiona says. It may even be possible to arrange for volunteers to deliver books, though the details of how that could be done have yet to be worked out.

The key thing with any reopening will be ensuring the safety of library staff and visitors, Fiona says. Explore York operations manager Sarah Garbacz is already talking to the city council's health and safety team about how this can be managed.

First, library staff will need to risk assess all their buildings.

Other issues they need to think about include whether staff will need PPE or screens to protect themselves, how to maintain social distancing within libraries, and whether libraries should learn from supermarkets and impose a limit on the number allowed in a library at any one time.

Nobody is more keen that Fiona to get the city's libraries up and running again. She was devastated when they had to close on March 21.

"We tried to keep them open as long as possible, because people wanted to come. Some people were very upset when we closed. But we had to accept that bringing people together in a space like a library was something that we should not be doing," she says.

That same consideration will apply as staff prepare for reopening - safety must come first.

The good news is that, throughout lockdown, Explore has continued to operate, if in a different way, as a 'virtual' online library service.

One of the first things the library staff did was to automatically renew all books which were out on loan. "And if necessary, we will renew again, so nobody has to worry about that," says Fiona.

Then the efforts of staff turned to making the most of Explore's online service.

With 54 of Explore's 84 staff placed on furlough, there have been limits to what the remaining library and archive staff have been able to do. Nevertheless, there has been an impressive amount going on.

Explore's online services include:

  • E-books. E-book borrowings (plus borrowing of audiobooks, e-magazines and e-newspapers) have gone up by an impressive 30 per cent since lockdown began, says Fiona. Explore was able to buy some new titles thanks to a £1,000 Arts Council loan, and now has 5,000 titles available. It has been particularly promoting e-books for children.

Library members can 'borrow' these books free by downloading a free app (either 'Libby' or 'Overdrive') to their phone, tablet, laptop or PC (sadly Kindle e-readers are not compatible). You then simply log in with your library card number and PIN. There's not even any risk of incurring a fine for keeping the books too long: the books automatically disappear when the loan period comes to an end.

If you're not a library member, don't worry: you can sign up now online using Explore's 'online joining form' (available from The online form asks you to create a four-digit PIN. Normally you would then have to go into a library to complete the process of joining, but during lockdown all you need to do is send an email to to get started.

  • Press Reader. This is actually nothing to do with The Press newspaper in York. Instead, it is an international online 'library' which gives access to more than 7,000 daily newspapers and magazines from all over the world - including the Daily Mail and The Guardian, and magazines like Gardener's World and Top Gear. Explore was able to join Press Reader thanks to a £17,000 grant from City of York Council, which means that library members can now read all these newspapers and magazines free. Again, just download the Press Reader app to your phone or tablet to get started...
  • Family history. The Ancestry library offers access to billions of family history records from the United Kingdom and abroad, including records for births, marriages, deaths, the military and criminals, as well as census returns, wills and much more. In 'normal' times you can only access this from library PCs or using library wifi, but during lockdown Explore has been able to give family historians and anyone interested in researching their family tree access from their own computer or tablet at home. It has proved enormously popular during lockdown, says Fiona.

To access the Ancestry database, visit and log in to the Ancestry webpage ( a link is provided) using your library log-in.

  • Historical images. Another hugely popular online offering is Explore's amazing digital archive of historic images of York. The website - - was redesigned shortly before lockdown, making it much easier to search and browse. It includes thousands of brilliant images of old York, many of them with fascinating and detailed captions - and more are being added all the time. If you find an image that you'd like to keep (of your street or your old house or even someone you recognise, such as a parent or grandparent) you can even buy it online - there's a simple-to-use online shop.
  • Coronavirus information page. At times like this, access to reliable information is vital, says Fiona. So the Explore website ( includes a prominent coronavirus information page which brings together the latest advice from the government, the city council, the NHS and the World Health Organisation
  • Culture and creativity at home. This is a prominent section of the Explore website which brings together links to a whole range of arts and educational organisations, local and national, which have fun or informative activities that you can do online. Constantly updated, these range from the East Riding Festival of Words poetry festival to cultural activity workshops designed by artists, online museum and gallery tours and community learning activities.