Do your shelf a favour and get back into your local library
With free access to books, mags, DVDs, web access, talks and courses – and no more fines for overdue items – Ireland's libraries are hoping to double their membership to 1.5m
The library became more than just a place to take out books; it grew into a beacon of independence, a cornucopia of ideas and thoughts that I was determined to devour. Photograph: iStock
When did you last visit a library? Unless you’re a young child or have one, it’s probably been quite some time as, despite dramatic changes and reinventions in recent years, libraries remain the preserve of impoverished students, young children and their parents and people searching for free wifi.
They are seldom thought of as the haunt of people who can afford to buy physical books, download virtual ones to a Kindle or watch the adapted TV/ film version. And while that mindset is understandable, people who ignore libraries are certainly missing out both financially and in other ways.
A newly released paperback could set you back as much as €15 while a hardback can cost twice that. By ploughing through just five paperbacks a month and a single hardback, keen readers could handily spend more than €1,200 a year on books, most of which they will only read once.
But free books are not the only draw, and our libraries have grown into places for free web access, free DVDs, free self-improving talks, free readings, free newspapers, free magazines and free book clubs. In fact, there is so much free stuff going on in the 400 or so libraries in the State that it’s a wonder there aren’t queues out the doors.
I would be in the queue if there was one. I’ve been a member of a library since I was very young and, over the years, I’ve collected library cards from all the cities I’ve lived in. Just looking at them brings back memories of my time in those places.
When I was a child my mother used to bring my siblings and me to Waterford’s central library every Friday after school. I loved it. It was a magical world full of pirates, witches, dragons and child sleuths. I couldn’t get enough of it.
Admittedly, my brother and sister were less fond of the books and more interested in the Viking longboat in the middle of the children’s room. For 20 or so blissful minutes we were Vikings invading an imaginary country of books and beanbags; somehow, the staff never kicked us out even though my mam disappeared down to the adults’ section to grab a book and five minutes’ peace.
Over the years, I went to a lot of the free events in the library, including a memorable drumming lesson – which consisted of banging on a Jacob’s biscuit tin in time with a circle of other biscuit tin-banging kids. Our percussive “symphony” was led by a barefoot man whom my Dad referred to as a hippie. It was great fun, though I would question their description of “drumming” lessons now.
In fourth class, I researched my first school project in the same room where Leaving Cert students pretended to study. Sitting at the table with huge tomes of Irish folklore around me, pen in hand, I was in heaven. The library became more than just a place to take out books; it grew into a beacon of independence, a cornucopia of ideas and thoughts that I was determined to devour.
There was also a sense of community and belonging, one which is fading in our digital age. The librarians knew me by name, they encouraged my interest and they chastised me when I had late fees (which my mother always obligingly paid).
I was devastated when they remodelled and put the children’s section down with the adult books to make more room for computers, reference books and study rooms. Our sacred world full of magic was now open to the adult realm, where categorisation and alphabetisation took precedence. The Viking ship disappeared.
That library never held the same magic again.
By then I’d started to read young adult books and we had moved house. Our closest library became a smaller suburban one located over a busy shopping centre; but it was light and airy and it had a calming atmosphere that made choosing books a pleasure.
You might call a library a safe space – that’s exactly what it was for me for years
I still adore libraries and, as I’ve grown older, I have come to see them as one of world’s greatest democratic success stories and believe we all have duty to protect them. With unlimited content at our fingertips via the internet, there is a tendency to dismiss libraries in favour of the web for your go-to source of information and knowledge.
Shadowy interest groups
That is understandable, but if recent history has taught us nothing else it has taught us of the dangers of trusting a technology which allows shadowy interest groups to push their biased narrative to the top of internet searches in an effort to get their skewed worldview in front of more people.
You might call a library a safe space – that’s exactly what it was for me for years, the place where I consumed book after book, always hungry for the next idea which would sweep me away on a magic carpet of imagination or challenge my outlook on how our world systems are set up.
In this sense, it’s essential that libraries remain open for the next generation so they too can learn in a free, non-judgmental environment. I don’t know if we’re in a “use it or lose it” scenario yet, but if we lose our libraries we will certainly be the poorer for it.
From a consumer point of view, being a member can save you a lot of cash too. If you’re like me and you know the kind of books you like but are always intrigued by new, award-winning releases, then borrowing them from the library eliminates what could be an unnecessary expense. This has saved me hundreds of euro over the years.
Earlier this year, fines were abolished for overdue items and existing fines were scrapped in an effort to encourage people back to availing of library services.
A post on the national library website says: “We are encouraging members of the public to return undamaged, overdue library items to their local libraries. There will be no overdue fines to pay and we would be happy to reactivate your library membership for you to begin using your local library again.”
Replacement charges have also been removed on children’s items and will not apply to anything on “young adult” cards. Replacement fines will be charged, however, on lost or damaged adult items on adult cards. This is calculated as the purchase price of the item, which is more than fair in my opinion.
There are exhibitions, you can do yoga, and you can record music demos for free
As if that wasn’t enough, most libraries offer more free services than any other State-backed body. My library in Dublin city offers more than 500 free e-courses in a wide range of areas including languages, accounting, psychology, office skills, real estate, pet and animal care and entrepreneurship.
Most libraries offer free wifi and printing services, which can come in dead handy if you’ve just moved house or you’re in need of a job that will eventually help you afford wifi or a computer.
Some have separate rooms for study, as well as reference books on special topics. You can take out audio books, DVDs, newspapers and magazines. There are exhibitions, you can do yoga, and you can record music demos for free (angsty teens hoping to be the next folk sensation should form an orderly queue).
There’s also a course in Tex-Mex cooking and candle making – I’m currently considering both of these, because why not? It’s free and in a world where everything seems to cost something, libraries seem to be the last bastion of learning for learning’s sake.
My book is 4,600 years overdue – is there a fine?
The first libraries in the world are believed to have been in the Mesopotamian city of Sumer and date back to 2,600 BC.
Marsh’s Library in St Patrick’s Close, adjacent to the cathedral of the same name, was the first public library in Ireland, opening its doors 1707 at the order of the splendidly named Archbishop Narcissus Marsh.
Ireland’s first local authority public library was the Free Public Library in Dundalk, which was opened in 1858.
There are around 20 million visits made to public libraries in Ireland every year.
Around 750,000 people are members of a library right now, although there are plans afoot to double that to 1.5 million over the next five years by making the places more versatile and more accessible to more people.
While the most frequently borrowed books in libraries change with the passing seasons (David Walliams is wildly popular now), the Official Driver Theory Test has long been a constant. It serves as an illustration of why the library works: it is a book you will read only a handful of times, after which you will never need it again (hopefully).
Borrowers will get a reminder email three days before the return date, and more emails after the due date
You might be amazed to learn how much cash library fines have been known to generate. More than €360,000 in fines were levied on people who dropped their books back late to the library last year across Dublin. The biggest problem was in the Dublin City Council area, where around €141,000 mounted up on late fines during the course of 2017.
From January 1st, fines for returning books late to libraries in Ireland were abolished; but, before you get too excited, you should know that those who keep books beyond their allocated time can still be punished, with their membership put on hold until they do they right thing.
Under the new rules, borrowers will get a reminder email three days before the return date, and more emails after the due date. Then, nine weeks after the due date, the item will be considered lost, and card borrowing privileges will be blocked and the user will be requested to present to their library.
There will be no replacement charge for children’s items which have been lost or damaged, and members under 18 will not be asked to pay replacement costs. Adults will be asked to pay a replacement charge if the item which has been lost or damaged is an adult item on an adult membership card. This cost will be calculated as the purchase price of the item.
A pilot programme in Sydney found that as many as three times the number of books were returned to libraries once the threat of a fine was removed.
Last August a book that was overdue by almost 20,000 days was returned to Thurles library. Had a fine been imposed on the biography of Fr Theobald Matthew by Rev Patrick Rogers, which was borrowed in 1965, the person returning it would have been hit for around €1,000.