“I watched Contagion last February,” says John Shortall. “It frightened the life out of me.” The Carlow County librarian is referring both to the 2011 Steven Soderbergh film and to February 2020, when rumours of a new virus were becoming worryingly present. “I had the whole staff in. I think they thought I was cracked – but they’ve responded in such an amazing way.”
Speaking with Shortall, you quickly begin to believe that if librarians were running the show, the world would be a better and nicer place. During lockdown, some of Carlow’s library team were redeployed to the Community Call Helpline, where, Shortall says, “their empathy and communication skills made them perfect”.
When I ask “why libraries?”, he seems a little surprised. After all, why would anyone not want to work in a library? Maybe the idea of a ready-for-anything crack team of librarians isn’t so far-fetched. My mother worked in the Cambridge Philosophical library in the 1960s. On her first day she was given a tour and taken to the basement. Her fellow librarian opened a cardboard box and called “catch”.
He had thrown her a skull.
“It came from St Bride’s Church in London,” Mum (whose name is Gill) tells me. They had found bones underneath the war-damaged church and transferred them to Cambridge. “That part of the library was called ‘Skulls’. It was like a right of passage to be brought there.” They think, she says, that the body parts date from the Great Plague, something she was only told after she had successfully “caught” one. Now here we are, back with our own version of the Plague: Covid.
“Three out of four of our libraries in Carlow are older buildings,” says Shortall when I share the story. “There’s plenty of history, and some jokes about a ghost in the archive, but I don’t think there are any bones.”
The reopening announcement came quickly. “It did catch me a little by surprise – the speed the country has reopened, but we were ready, and have been looking forward to the day. It’s an unnatural thing for us to be closed, we’re such a people-centred service.”
Initially, the team had thought they would be opening with click and collect, but customers can call or email and book a half-hour slot, during which they can browse and choose books to their hearts’ content. The library has been deep- cleaned in advance of the opening, and there are all the expected sanitisers and screens.
“On the day we reopened, we had 85 people in – it’s a bit strange, in a year, we’d usually have 120,000. But it can only go up from here. And to see people’s faces – they were only delighted, and our staff were too.”
I wonder about sanitising books. Not as in blacking out the risque bits, but cleansing for Covid times. In the early days, Shortall and his team were wiping them down. “Then the advice changed to quarantine them for three days.” That advice has since moved on, as surface contamination from books is not considered dangerous.
“We still do it,” says Shortall. “It gives our customers confidence. We started implementing our local control measures really early. It was mid-February 2020]. On March 3rd we called the staff in and said ‘it’s bad. This is the last time we’ll all be in a room together for a while.’ There was a huge amount of fear. We didn’t know what was coming, but we knew we wanted to do as much as we could to protect each other.”
Thinking of Shortall watching Contagion back in the early days, I wonder if the books people borrowed changed during the pandemic. “I do know that people rediscovered reading,” he says. “The joy of going elsewhere, escaping into a book.” In February, when Libraries Ireland asked people to join the Ireland Reads campaign (irelandreads.ie) and pledge to put aside time to read a book each day, 570,000 people signed up.
But with e-books and audiobooks, one might wonder why it’s so important for libraries to be housed in physical buildings. Why can’t they all go virtual? This is exactly the misperception that Shortall is passionately committed to changing.
These days libraries offer IT services and run exhibitions and events. From access to computers and the internet, to story time for kids, to language and literacy classes, book launches, talks and lectures, the role of the local library is wide. Most of this is in abeyance, and will come back in safe stages.
For now, it’s all about borrowing books.
“I’ve taken the changes for granted,” says Shortall. “It’s inherent in being a librarian that you move with the times, you move with society, you move with the world. You still work with people, that hasn’t changed. The library is a safe, secure, democratic space. it’s not for any one category or group. It’s a place where people can be free to meet, they don’t have to spend money. It’s one of the last great sanctuaries.”
He’s also quick to dismiss the cliche of the angry librarian hissing at people to stay below a whisper. “You might have the quiet corner, where people are studying, but public libraries aren’t silent in the old traditional ways. We expect people to be mindful of others, and respectful. In general they are. Library users love their libraries.”
E-books are a problem, however. In January this year, resolving not to give any more money to Amazon, I discovered the eBook and audiobook service through Libraries Ireland (librariesireland.ie). But while a library may purchase a book and have it to lend until it wears out, eBooks are licensed on a usage basis. Undoubtedly speeded up by Covid, eBook loans have increased 103 per cent in the first four months of this year, compared withto the same period in 2020.
“It’s not just an Irish issue,” says Shortall. “It’s something being discussed on a European scale.” Publisher actions are “resulting in restrictive licensing conditions and inflated pricing”.
That problem aside, Shortall is positive. “We’re living in a golden age of public libraries,” he says. “Ireland is the first country to have a national library management system.” This means you have the entire catalogue at your disposal. “Look up any book you want, and if it’s on a shelf somewhere, we’ll have it to you in a week. So you’ve gone from your local library to having 17 million books at your fingertips.”
Meantime, he says library staff have also spent lockdown delivering online content, recording podcasts and more. “Many became amateur filmmakers, and they responded to it amazingly. Still, it will nice to get back to Saturday story time, or a book launch. Lockdown has been hard on authors.”
Another project has been the Covid archive, a time capsule and diary for people to fill out. “We are living through history, and as much of it as possible is being recorded and captured. Something people may think is unimportant now may be really important in 20 years time.”
As the libraries welcome us back, they are also welcoming back something else, a little more unexpected: when library fines were abolished in 2019, books began to return. “It took the fear out,” says Shortall. “People had misguidedly thought they might be fined thousands. We got books out that had been loaned years ago. There was one from 1948. We were delighted.”