The last truly democratic space, where nobody moves you along
Cutting library budgets is a false economy at a time when they are more relevant than ever
THE LATE Seán Mac Réamoinn once observed he was like a census form: broken down by age, sex and religion. I could only use this analogy if the census let me tick an extra box to show knees broken down by playing football past my 50th birthday.
Knee cartilage damage made me lean momentarily against a wall in Dublin’s Ilac shopping centre for the few seconds it took to text my son about his shirt size.
Immediately a Gauleiter in uniform alighted to inform me I was committing a serious misdemeanour.
While management had no objection to me shopping, having the audacity to lean on a wall was the sort of felony that could get me barred.
This man wasn’t joking. He was conscientious about the threat posed by loitering middle-aged men whose fashion sense stalled in 1986. If our financial regulator had been as alert to danger, Ireland would not be in its current mess.
Unfortunately we are in a mess. This means unemployed people of all ages and classes will find themselves pausing for breath in public places. Their problem is that the shopping cathedrals that replaced our bustling streets are not public spaces.
They give the illusion of being welcoming: often using old street names to generate the notion of being part of the community. But they are private spaces created for shopping and – although few put it as bluntly as my security guard – unless you’re buying something you don’t belong.
Ironically the Ilac also contains the most democratic, welcoming space in Dublin – with an utterly different ethos, where nobody watches to see how long you stay, because once you go upstairs you enter Dublin city’s central library.
When I lost my mother as a child, libraries saved my life. Libraries gave me an alternative world to survive in, where I could be swept along inside mystery books, offering imaginative freedom and safe spaces to explore emotion.
Books were a halfway world where I could grow up without having to experiment with things I wasn’t ready for, where I was transported not by drugs or alcohol but the power of someone’s imagination.
Books were safe stepping stones – amid the real stepping stones I had to take – in the awkward business of growing up.
Today I believe public libraries are saving not just children but the sorts of people who previously rarely entered libraries but now seek sanctuary there every day. Libraries have become the most democratic, non-judgmental spaces we have.