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New Voices RGU Student Series – Chloe Hartley

Category: New Voices, New Voices, RGU Student Series

In the Robert Gordon University Student Series blog, we share the views of RGU students from the MSc in Information and Library Studies course.

Today, we hear from Chloe Hartley, a distance-learning student on the MSc course at RGU who has a background in data management and translation. In her spare time, she enjoys reading Victorian literature and exploring the Welsh countryside where she currently lives. In this blog, Chloe reflects on the unique importance of libraries to neurodiverse users and on what can be done to support them while in-person library services may be unavailable during the pandemic.

Chloe’s blog discusses the vital part libraries play in supporting neurodiverse users and the impact of Covid-19 on this provision.

Saving the Stranded: considering the use of digital literacy skills to continue provision of public library services for users with ASD and learning disabilities in a post Covid-19 world.

Those with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and neurodiversity are among those most vulnerable to COVID-19, with the Office for National Statistics (2020) finding that those with a learning disability such as ASD or Asperger syndrome are at higher risk of both catching the virus and struggling to fight the infection once caught. Those in this demographic are not only physically more at risk, but also stand to suffer more mentally as well. Left Stranded (National Autistic Society 2020), a report of the impact of COVID-19 on autistic people, found that those with autism were 7 times more likely to be chronically lonely than the general population due to the pandemic. On top of all this, those with learning disabilities are also largely digitally excluded in the UK (Good Things Foundation 2020), and therefore struggle to navigate the same digital resources that others can. So, this all begs the question, what can libraries do to help? 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, research had shown that the role of the public library is invaluable to those with learning disabilities. This is explored by Halvorson, who states that ‘in many ways, a library is the ideal place for children with AS [Asperger syndrome], many of whom love to escape the demands of the social world through books and computers” (2006 p. 19). Providing activities, socialisation, and as Halvorson points out, escapism, are just a few of the ways in which public library services are valuable to users with additional developmental needs, their parents and carers. Many physical library spaces have been adapted to suit the needs of those with ASN (additional support needs), such as the ‘Au-some’ Inverclyde libraries (2020), in keeping with the Dimensions’ Autism Friendly Libraries initiative (2020). When access to all of these benefits was stripped away during lockdown, those with ASD suffered mentally as a consequence.

To be digitally vulnerable during the pandemic means more than just missing out on online opportunities and experiences – for autistic people, it’s the difference between having something to engage in during lockdown and not. The activities that these users once had access to may not still be available to them, and some of them may struggle to understand why. In this way, the pandemic has highlighted the fundamental barriers that those with ASN face, with the NHS stating that COVID-19 has “brought into sharp focus the longstanding, structural inequities facing people with a learning disability and autistic people” (NHS Providers 2020). These obstacles mean, going forward, public librarians must harness digital literacy skills on behalf of their ASD users.

Digital literacy in the public library setting has been recognised as a valuable skill for the educationally disadvantaged for some time. DLit 2.0 (Digital Opportunities Foundation 2014), a European project funded in the Lifelong Learning Programme, saw libraries across Europe retrain staff to facilitate the digital inclusion of those most vulnerable in society. The European Commission also developed the DigComp Conceptual reference model, a framework designed to help citizens gain digital literacy skills. In terms of applying these in a library setting, some are more relevant than others: for example, “5.2 Identifying needs and technological responses” and “5.4 Identifying digital competence gaps” (European Commission Information Society Unit 2016) are both particularly important when tailoring services to the digital needs of ASD users, and individual user needs must be considered. Librarians must also endeavour to impart these competencies where possible, to provide their users with the skills to help prevent digital exclusion in the event of further enforced isolation.

When considering library provision, the competence area of Digital Content Creation will be invaluable in ensuring the digitally vulnerable are never left stranded again. “3.1 Developing digital content” and “5.3 Creatively using digital technologies” (European Commission Information Society Unit 2016) must be applied within the digital library space to provide a digital haven for users with ASD. This could be through the creation of autism-friendly social networking spaces, provision of informative texts through online open-access information spaces, or the creation of podcasts to maintain contact with autistic users.

Ultimately, the most valuable lesson the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us is that librarians must stay adaptive to meet the needs of their users. In an uncertain age, where both digital technology and society are constantly fluctuating, it is about much more than a means for the public library to stay current; it’s a matter of duty to those who are vulnerable.



BERNSMANN, S. and CROLL, J., 2013. Lowering the threshold to libraries with social media: The approach of “Digital Literacy 2.0”, a project funded in the EU Lifelong Learning Programme. Library Review, 62(1), pp. 53-58.

DIGITAL OPPORTUNITIES FOUNDATION, 2014. Digital Literacy 2.0. [online]. Berlin: Digital Opportunities Foundation. Available from: [Accessed 21 November 2020].

DIMENSIONS, 2020. Autism Friendly Libraries. [online]. Reading: Dimensions UK Ltd. Available from: [Accessed 21 November 2020].

EUROPEAN COMMISSION INFORMATION SOCIETY UNIT, 2016. The Digital Competence Framework 2.0. [online]. Brussels: Publications Office of the European Union. Available from: [Accessed 20 November 2020].

GOOD THINGS FOUNDATION, 2020. Digital Nation 2020. [online]. Sheffield: Good Things Foundation. Available from: [Accessed 20 November 2020].

HALVORSON, H., 2006. Asperger’s Syndrome: How the Public Library Can Address These Special Needs. Children & Libraries: The Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children, 4(3), pp. 19-27.

INVERCYLDE LIBRARIES, 2020. Inverclyde Libraries are Au-some!. [online]. Greenock: Inverclyde Council. Available from: [Accessed 21 November 2020].

NATIONAL AUTISTIC SOCIETY, 2020. Left stranded: our new report into the impact of coronavirus. [online]. London: The National Autistic Society. Available from: [Accessed 19 November 2020].

NHS PROVIDERS, 2020. Parliamentary briefing: Provisions for those with learning difficulties and autism during the COVID-19 pandemic. [online]. London: NHS Providers. Available from: [Accessed 21 November 2020].

OFFICE FOR NATIONAL STATISTICS, 2020. Coronavirus and the social impacts on disabled people in Great Britain: September 2020. [online]. United Kingdom: Office for National Statistics. Available from: [Accessed 19 November 2020].

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