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.

Despite this, libraries are seeing budgets slashed, although some, like South Dublin Libraries, have managed to retain their core funding by repeatedly showing how vital they have become and how this recession has eradicated any notion of an “average” library user.

Libraries cherish books but also give people verified information. Everything is available on Google, but Google is another kind of Gauleiter, whose real function is to sell you things. It is a maze of information and disinformation.

With more people using the internet to research health or finance issues, library staff can guide users towards verifiable sites.

For local authorities, the library book budget is the easiest cut – with some smaller counties having as little as €25,000 to spend. Readers rarely protest – no book club could be mistaken for a Youth Defence flying squad.

However, library usage is soaring and teeming with new demographics.

There is an influx of males between 18 and 35, reading Irish and foreign newspapers online, searching for jobs or researching before interviews, with 68 per cent also borrowing books.

Across Ireland, highly educated men are beating themselves up, feeling they can no longer provide for their families. These men sometimes feel ashamed to bring their children to school, feeling this carries the public stigma of being unemployed.

Libraries though have seen a surge in fathers bringing children to parent-and-toddler sessions or just helping them pick books, delighted to find something they do for their children.

Such men are coming back on their own because, with computers, libraries are becoming virtual offices for tentative small enterprises, with unemployed men and women taking steps towards economic recovery by using the one thing no one can take from them – their initiative – in a space with no Gauleiter to tell them to move on.

In libraries we become citizens, not consumers.

Local politicians need to grasp that for many of their constituents, libraries are the last truly democratic spaces.

Cutbacks to library budgets are a false economy.

Let politicians look at figures for mental health issues, let them look at suicide rates among the very demographics now starting to use libraries. It will show how little will be gained and how much lost by cutting library budgets any more than is utterly necessary.

Kildare Village shopping outlet, is not a village. The phrase Dundrum Town Centre is an oxymoron. The true centres of our communities are public libraries, where everyone is equal and nobody moves you along.

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