Mary O’Rourke on staffless libraries: ‘Whose daft idea was this?’

In an open letter, the former minister advises against cuts to a vital community resource


To: Simon Coveney, Minister for Local Government

Hello Simon,

I feel I can talk with you directly because you came into the Dáil via a byelection during my time as minister for public enterprise.

You were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when you came in and I am glad to see from TV and radio and written media that you remain bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as you put forward your very fine housing programme for the current Government to implement.

Did you know that writing letters is in vogue again? I have, modestly let me say, written a book, Letters of My Life. Quite suddenly, letters are fashionable again. So I have chosen this route to write to you about a very serious matter.

It’s about libraries. Libraries come under the remit of local government. Therefore it is you who are responsible for the funding for local authorities who, in turn, fund the libraries.

A new wave has swept the sector: it’s called a “staffless library”. Now I know that sounds sort of ridiculous. Pilot studies have been taken and results have been annotated in counties Offaly and Sligo.

So how does one access a staffless library? You have your swipe card, you swipe it, you go in, you browse, you pick your book, you come out, swipe again and go home. That is your visit to your local library.

So what happens when there are staffless libraries? There is no conversation, there’s no exchange of views, there’s no hello, goodbye, how-are-you? There are none of the normal pleasantries that one goes through before you ever get to talk about a book with a librarian.

Mapping Ireland's 'staffless' libraries

Human interaction

A library is a place of human interaction. It is a place of conversation; a resource much admired and much valued. Why strip it of the staff?

I cannot see how this bodes well for the library system of Ireland. Of course county councils have to make cutbacks. We all understand that. But whoever said the cutbacks had to be expressed in the realm of staffless libraries? Whose daft idea was this?

Under this new era, let’s say two or three young primary schoolchildren seek the help of the librarian about what sources of knowledge they can consult as part of a school project.

In a staffless library, there will be no one there to meet them to answer their their quest for more information.

Yes, of course I approve of extended library hours. Who could quibble with such an idea? But please, let them not be staffless extended hours.

We are constantly being told that communication is the key to better living, that many young people feel adrift in the modern world of today and feel the need to unburden themselves, to communicate, to be at one with other people. It is hard to communicate in a staffless library.

Simon, you have proven yourself to be a politician of substance. I do not say this casually or lightly. I have read your housing programme in full and it makes a lot of sense. My hope is that you will be left in your particular position right now to fulfil it, or at least to put it on track where no one can come back from it.

Of course, you may be called to higher things if the rumblings we hear about An Taoiseach and you are one of the two or three in the fray to succeed him. Don’t be in any rush to do that.

Keep to your task at hand, which is your housing programme, which is so much needed throughout Ireland and which will be a lasting monument to your sterling work in that field.

Crazy, idiotic

I have a final plea to you: Please do not allow the crazy, idiotic half-formed staffless libraries to continue under your remit.

If they do, and if they become the norm, such a so-called innovation will cast a shadow over your record. I cannot believe that a thoughtful politician like you would wish to see his or her record festooned with a badge of the guy who brought in staffless libraries in Ireland.

Libraries are important. Libraries are precious. Libraries are wonderful places but we need the staff in libraries so that the full remit of having books to offer to people of all ages; they should remain a beacon for all in our towns, big and small.

Now Simon, that’s my open letter for today and it is to you, Simon Coveney, Minister for Housing and also Minister for Local Government (including libraries).

Yours with best wishes,

Mary O’Rourke

Mary O’Rourke is a former minister for education, health and public enterprise.