When their library went into lockdown, the Main Public Library of Lima —which is part of the public libraries network run by the
— was able to migrate some of their services online; for example, they organized virtual reading clubs and offered classes in subjects like mathematics, ICT, and e-literacy.
However, librarians were worried about the people who would be excluded from the library during lockdown as they did not have access to computers and the internet.
They needed a non-face-to-face, non-virtual solution and came up with the idea of a telephone reading service, which they called 'Aló BNP'
"Although the telephone has been with us for decades, more and more we are communicating in writing via the internet," said Ezio Neyra, head of the BNP.
was launched at the end of June (2020) and was instantly popular. Soon, over 200 people had registered for the service. By far, the majority were the elderly, who are the most isolated because they are at risk of severe illness when infected with COVID-19 and so must avoid in-person human contact wherever possible.
"Our 'Aló BNP'
publicity reached the elderly indirectly," Neyra stressed.
"Our main channel was our social media. Even though older adults do not have the internet, do not use computer technology, or do not use social media, they have family members or caretakers who hear about the service, or know people who use the service. Elderly people or their family members also heard about the service through newspaper stories, TV, and radio when the library gave interviews," he added.
How the service works
To register for the service, people must provide the library with information about themselves —their gender, their needs and interests (education, entertainment or news), their preferences (such as poetry, books, magazines or newspapers, fiction or nonfiction), and they must suggest a good time for a call.
The information is provided via an online form, and people —who cannot access or use computers— ask friends, family or caretakers for help.
Each new client is assigned a reader, and the first step is for the reader to contact the client to discuss and agree on a reading program. Once a week, the reader telephones the client for a 30-minute reading session at the specified time.
"When assigned to a client, the reader must accompany the client for two months. This allows the pair to build a relationship, even though they are physically distant," Neyra indicated.
The service started small, with just three readers who were librarians and eight clients. But the number of clients grew very quickly, and five more people signed up to be volunteer readers, each reading to six clients. Still registrations kept coming —and as the numbers of clients grew— so did the number of volunteer readers, and soon the library was regularly calling over 200 people.
"Of the 239 people who we have read to since June, the youngest is aged five, and the oldest is 95. Over 60% of calls have been to people aged over 50, and 10% to children needing help with their education; 61% of the clients are women and girls," he stated.
Feedback from service users expresses joy at receiving calls, especially from those who are lonely and isolated.
Expansion to meet the growing demand
To accommodate growing demand, the library has recruited over 100 new volunteer readers, and expects to reach about 2,000 people.
A new virtual telephone exchange will make it possible for people who do not have computers or the internet to register by phone.
Readers will receive and make calls from home, and the new system also automatically allocates reading times, taking some of the administrative pressure off readers who were doing this manually.