Libraries: Remarkable places we should cherish
Less than 20% of Irish people describe themselves as regular users
Irish libraries have shown themselves to be wonderfully deft at moving with changing times.
If something seems too good to be true, then it is too good to be true has long been a guiding principal of this page. It is has served us well for many years as we have steered people - and sometimes ourselves - away from the latest scam or cautioned readers against falling for “bargains” which turn out to be ginormous rip offs.
But there is an exception to this golden rule. Our libraries.
By almost every single measure we can think of, Irish libraries are remarkable places and something we should cherish and support in every convievable sense.
Many people seem to agree. The level of consensus about the importance of libraries became very clear to us last week when we asked Twitter a simple question. This is what we asked: “Do you think libraries have relevance today or are they an out-of date throwback to times past?”
Within hours we had received close to a thousand responses, the vast, vast majority of which were singing the praises of our libraries. Many of the responses were a joy to read and an affirmation that in a world that sometimes seems to be drowning in technology-fuelled toxicity there is a place for pleasant positivity.
There was also - sadly - much evidence of that technology-fuelled toxicity too. In fact some people were gravely offended that we would have the temerity to pose the question.
“Just reading the tone of this question annoyed me,” one Twitter user responded. “It takes a single Google to discover the sheer vast social power libraries bring. To every organisation and group they touch.”
“If you’re asking, you’re out of touch,” another user said. “How could you even ask that question?” wondered someone else. Our question was called daft and one person said they were so angered by it that they would most certainly not be reading any subsequent article on the topic that Pricewatch might write.
Most of the others who responded were not so annoyed and were happy to be given the opportuntiy to rave about their local libraries and the wider system as it operates across the country.
But here’s the thing. If an alien were to fall to earth and only read the responses to the question we posed on Twitter they would be forgiven for thinking that the vast, vast majority of Irish people genuinely cherish their libraries and use them all the time.
But that is not the case, not by a long shot. Rather than cherish our libraries and take advantage of all they have to offer the vast majority of Irish people seem, in fact, happier to turn their backs on them entirely.
The numbers don’t lie. Less than 20 per cent of Irish people describe themselves as regular library users which means that more than three million people in this country rarely or never use libraries.
The three million are making a terrible mistake. They are missing out on free books – both physical and electronic – free internet access, free DVDs, free Wi-Fi, free self-improving talks, free readings, free newspapers, free magazines and free book clubs.
We could go on and on and on. In fact there’s so much free stuff going in the close to 400 libraries around the country that it is hard to know where to start.
Actually, it’s easy to know where to start. We should start at the National Library Open Day which takes place this coming Saturday in a library near you.
The Open Day is “a special invitation to everyone to come in and see for themselves all that’s on offer at their local library” and as part of the event, libraries across the country will showcase some of the services they offer and will have “friendly staff on hand to join you up and show you around in-library and online services”.
It is a brilliant idea and one which should be embraced by everyone.
Among the experiences on offer in libraries on Saturday will be a comic illustration workshop and lace making demonstration in Carlow; 3D printing and a chance to meet robots in South Dublin; a board game bonanza, Lego club and ‘Match Attax Meet Up’ in Cork city. There is a ukulele workshop in Co Cork and a slime workshop in Co Westmeath.
That is not all. There will be the chance to play with virtual reality, sow sunflowers and take part in a treasure hunt in Co Wexford. A library in Co Galway will be offering free health checks while there will be chair exercise classes in Co Leitrim.
And did we mention that everything which will take place in many of the 330 librries around the State is free?
Despite the fact that most people in Ireland seem happy to turn their backs on libraries these are good times for the precious resources. There were over 17 million visits to Irish libraries in 2018, and nearly 14 million items were issued that year.
They have shown themselves to be wonderfully deft at moving with changing times and give access to more than 500 e-learning courses and 114 language courses. There are 28,000 e-books available and 20,000 e-audio books, as well as 300 international magazine titles and 3,200 accessible newspapers.
People who have not set foot inside a library since they last read about Aunt Fanny dispensing lashings of ginger beer and tongue sandwiches to beat the band while Uncle Quentin glowered in his study might, in fact, be shocked by how much libraries have changed since they gave up on them.
One big change in recent times has meant that when you join one library in Ireland today you join all of them . You can now order online and pick up a book in Dublin and leave in back in Donegal - the first such library set up in the world. You can browse and download eBooks, audiobooks, eMagazines and e-Newspapers on your phone or other device.
There is access to equipment including virtual reality, 3D printing, sensory equipment and laptops. There is free internet access, space to study, work or read and relax, resources to support people looking for work or setting up businesses and information for those interested in local history.
And while libraries are about so much more than money, that is to be saved too? How much? Well, an avid reader can cut costs quite a bit by joining a library. Even if you buy a newly released paperback for a tenner – and many cost more than that – by reading five a month someone could handily spend over €700 a year on books, most of which they will only read once.
With all the benefits it is a wonder that just 16 per cent of the population are active members of the library.
Maybe things will change though. That is certainly the aim of the National Library Strategy which wants to see membership grow to 30 per cent in the next few years.
Strategies that have been put in place so far to grow the numbers include the extension of opening hours to better suit busy lives and the removal of late fees and fines to ensure everyone has access to services without fear of penal charges.
The strategy aims to expand self-service facilities and widen the My Local Library scheme - a self service system which currently is open 8am – 10pm 365 days a year - to 100 library branches across the country and then 200 branches over the next decade.
The strategy will also see greater investment in digital technologies to enhance the service and to bridge the digital divide by developing digital learning centres and offering STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) and coding workshops.
It also seeks to “firmly establish the library as a welcoming, go-to-place locally with skilled staff providing guidance and support and access to communal spaces, services and resources for all people and communities”.
While we get many things very wrong in Ireland - and Pricewatch is rarely found wanting when it comes to highlighting the bad stuff - libraries are one thing we appear to be getting very right.
Some countries, including the UK and US, have experienced severe cuts to their library services over the past decade which have resulted in reduced library use and book lending, reduced opening hours and library closures.
By contrast, in Ireland between 2012 and 2017 there were 45 new or extended library branches and more are planned while expenditure on stock increased by 15 per cent from 2012 to 2016. The last budget saw an increase of investment in libraries from €6.2 million to €7.2 million while almost €3.5 million has been committed from Government to date for the My Open Library scheme and is being matched by local authorities to the value of around €1 million giving a total investment of almost €4.5 million.
What our libraries need more than money is your support. If you are one of the millions who are not a member, do something good this week and join up. You’ll be glad you did. There is no question about that.
The librarian’s view: ‘It is a joy to work here’
If Pricewatch sounds enthusiastic about libraries, then listen to executive librarian from Waterford Libraries Tracy McEneaney talk for a few minutes.
“Libraries are for every single person. Everyone who is a member realises how great the service is and we rely on word of mouth to a huge degree. Membership is free and we have abolished the fines that might have been putting people off and also widened the service so when you join one library you are a member of all the libraries so you can take a book out in Waterford and return it in Donegal.”
“We have all the best sellers and e-books are a big thing for us now and work with an app called borrowbox. You select your library, input your library number and pin and download the books or audio books you fancy. It is that simple and it is free. I sometimes go to funerals and people will come up to me and tell me that borrowbox kept their granny going. It is lovely to hear that.
“And it is not just books we have electronically. We have almost 500 magazines from the New Yorker and the Economist down to Hello available and they are all free. It is brilliant and 10 or 20 years ago none of this stuff was available.
“They are not quiet places anymore and the nosiest people are likely to be the librarians and we don’t really shush people. Libraries have become community hubs and there is always something going on. There are thousands of events across the country from talks and book clubs to yoga and health eating workshops.
“We get to know our customers – especially in the smaller braches and we know all about the births and the deaths and the hardships and the joys.
Come in and ask us what we have on offer. We are practically pulling people off the street. It is a joy to work in a library.
But we have to reach the people in Ireland who maybe have not been in a library since they were children. It is great when people come back. I love seeing people who I remember as babies brining their own children through the doors.
My message to people would be simply be if you haven’t been to a library in years come back and have a look
Your view: ‘Libraries have never been more relevant’
“My local library was a godsend when I was completing my 2 Dissertations in my final year of college.. staff were great too. If I needed a book for reference and it was in another branch they’d transfer it.. Definitely still a much needed & wanted facility,” - Babs McMahon
“I love the library and withdraw books regularly,” - Oonagh Duggan
“They are great resource and learning centres,” - Michael Kelly
“I can read all the local and national papers there, and they have book clubs and reading /author events. PCs and printers are always busy. Relevant? Never more relevant,” - Frank Smith
“The library system in Ireland is brilliant. I am now effective a member of every library. I order my books on their website, they are delivered from whatever library they are in, I get a text to collect them in the local library. I’ve stopped buying books. Our local library at Kevin Street is much loved - refurbished a couple of years ago, it’s a really welcoming place, always busy, and staffed by the loveliest people. I also often drop in to the Cavan Town library, which is brilliant. A sign of civilisation,” - Patricia Reilly
“The library in Clonakilty is buzzing with people from the direct provision centre in town, people who don’t have desktop computers using the internet, kids & all sorts of other people using it’s many facilities - they’re community hubs, in rural towns at least,” - Beth Wallace
“I use my library weekly. My kids love it. They always have books rented out. I order books I want to rent from the library through their website. They e-mail me when they come in. I wish they would open on a Saturday though,” - Guillaume L’Hiver
“So relevant and vital - real, untainted information in a peaceful place of refuge,” - Gerr Walsh
“I’d a granda who would go every Saturday and get his five novels and read them in a week. That wasn’t a rarity back then. But how society entertains itself has changed. Libraries have had to adapt to that. They seem to be doing a great job of this in the face of severe adversity,” - Abby Oliveira
“Granted I work in a library but it’s not a public library. Public libraries are one of the most human and democratic social spaces. I love mine,” - Ger Gregory
“How dare you even question their relevance,” - Eoin Murphy
“I run a lunchtime bookclub in an inner city disadvantaged secondary school. Cabra library supplies us with the books and has been so helpful. We’re currently reading Pride and Prejudice. It’s a real life line for the students- couldn’t run it without the support of the library,” - Lorraine Ni Mhathuna
“Completely relevant. They are more than just book lending facilities, they are community learning and information centres offering facilities people may not have access to at home. They’re also one of the few places people can sit indoors for free,” - Bessie Burgers
“I use mine weekly! So relevant and important. Such a great community hub,” - Melanie May
“If it wasn’t for one of the local well stocked libraries running a University outreach course, I’d wouldnt be a mature student in TCD right now. Dublin City Libraries doesn’t get a lot of credit or recognition for the stellar work it does in communities that are otherwise bereft of books,” - Mark Egan
“A place where kids and teenagers (anyone indeed) can go and get books without having to ask for money for it or have anyone breathing down their neck about it is the kind of freedom that’s getting a bit too scarce these days,” - Stephen Bourke
“I would be LOST without my library!!! I am an avid reader. I get a new book for my birthday and Christmas. Besides that I get books at my local library once every few weeks. Call me a nerd but the feeling I get leaving my library with about six books in hand ... can’t beat it!” - Sharon Mulry