During the pandemic, our reading habits changed. We sort of know this instinctively, but librarian Mary Carleton Reynolds puts meat on the notion. At the coalface of behaviour and taste, she has observed, “People became a bit more reflective. We all did, I suppose. You found people were reading, maybe things that they wouldn’t read before. Inspiring biographies. Poetry became very popular – and people were writing their own poetry.
“There was more demand for books on art and gardening, DIY, all that stuff. And because we had to stay at home, people wanted to escape sometimes, with books set in other places. Reading about being somewhere else is a great way into other worlds and other experiences. And our Irish writers are always very, very popular.” There was a huge surge in libraries’ online services too, including ebooks and newspapers.
Carleton Reynolds, Longford’s County Librarian, who’s seen it all and is about to retire after 30 years, is inspirational about the pleasures of reading in the run-up to Ireland Reads. In the campaign to get Ireland engaged in what’s described as a national day of reading, this Friday, February 25th, Irish libraries have teamed up with publishers, booksellers and authors, as part of the Government’s Healthy Ireland programme, to celebrate reading’s benefits for wellbeing and enjoyment.
She’s seen lots of changes, but says “we’re still a nation who love our books. We really appreciate the value of reading for pleasure. It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give your child: reading for pleasure – as well as for school. And sometimes the two got mixed up in the past. If you’re saying you want to develop reading habits, you have to give children choice and a space where they can browse and choose what they want, whether it’s sport or fantasy or whatever. You’re not prescribing it.”
‘Community living room’
She’s evangelical about libraries – and well she might be. “We’ve battled over the years that cliche of ‘Shhh’, and of the librarian as a very stern person.” These days they’re bright, modern spaces, with free access for all, what she calls “a community living room”.
They’ve just opened a new library in Edgeworthstown, for example. “It’s a small town in rural Ireland. Our vision is to be that community living room for the town, a space to meet, where there are lots of things happening. Society has changed. In a town like Edgeworthstown, we have 26 or 28 nationalities. The library had to respond to that. So you have books in different languages, storytellers.”
She talks about the buzz there on Saturday mornings.
“If you live in rural Ireland, there isn’t a bookshop closeby, but there’s a library. We have I think 230 branch libraries around the country. So every town and village has a library, that space and access.”
Over recent years “we’ve invested in our spaces” so libraries are welcoming, and quick to respond to change with “not just a huge range of books” in modern, bright buildings but also events, readings, gallery spaces, computer facilities, workshops and sensory walls. “They might have a writer in, you can join the book club, do a coding class or an art class, a poetry workshop. There’s always something happening. Or you can sit quietly.”
What she’s describing are non-commercial safe spaces for citizens. “You can hang there all day if you wish. And people do. People come here for so many different reasons. What I’ve always loved about a library is, it doesn’t have any labels attached. It’s a very democratic space. Nobody’s asked to move on.”
These days there are no membership fees nor do you need to produce ID – “those barriers that would have been there in the past”. Abolishing fines for late book returns has been a game-changer, she says – and the books do come back. “People expected books would not be returned, but it’s actually the opposite if anything. Because sometimes it goes a day or two overdue, and I don’t have the money today but I’ll have it next week. And the next thing it goes under the bed or on the shelf and it’s forgotten. Now there’s no reason not to bring it back.”
Plus, “if I’m a library member, I have access to the stock of every public library in the country. Millions of books. Stock that was sitting on shelves in one county is moving around the country. A book can arrive in Lanesboro from west Cork in a few days. That has made a huge difference in terms of value for money too: you’re getting more bang for your buck.”
Irelandreads.ie asks everyone to “squeeze in a read” on Friday, with support from book “ambassadors”, reading reminders, events and throwing up book suggestions based on interests and reading level. There’s also an odd quantification of all that reading, by inviting pledges of reading time on February 25th; the total was 142,075 minutes when last we checked.
Pandemic and reading
As Reynolds observes, “There are very few things you can do that don’t require any intervention from anybody else. You can read a book anywhere. I love to go to bed and read.” Unsurprisingly, her top tip for reading more is “Drop into your local library. Just because, say, I’d never read fiction, but maybe you have a great interest in history or sport. Or maybe you love antiques. One size doesn’t fit all, and one thing you have in a library is choice. And we’re all curious about what other people are reading.
“I think a lot of people realised during the pandemic how much pleasure a book can give you. And when you’re travelling, you can get tired of listening to music or sometimes the radio can stress you. But it’s lovely to get into an audio book. It gobbles up the miles. It’s another world. That’s what it does. There’s nothing more relaxing, enjoyable, inspiring than sitting down to whatever you like. Books are a great medicine, for the mind, and for the heart and soul. And the people you meet in the library. We have a banner: readers become leaders. There’s so much we learn about ourselves and others. Who doesn’t love a good story?”