Diarmaid Ferriter: Self-service libraries are not true libraries
Many library users need assistance and libraries have to be staffed by those with knowledge to be true to their mission
The Central Library at Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, where staff are objecting to a decision by management to open on Sundays without any library staff present. Photograph: Eric Luke.
When he was junior minister in the department of local government in 1947, Fianna Fáil’s Erskine Childers was centrally involved in the introduction of the Public Libraries Act. The purpose of this was to create a library council to oversee acceptance from the Carnegie Trust of the gift of the Irish Central Library, which the trust had maintained since 1923 in order to supplement the stocks of smaller provincial libraries. The 1947 Act was also designed to assist local authorities to improve their library services.
With his customary frankness, Childers underlined the deficiencies of the public library service at that time and deplored that it had long been regarded as the Cinderella of local services .The county library scheme that had taken shape as a result of the 1925 Local Government Act, which had established county councils as the library authorities, was woefully inadequate.
Childers wanted the library service to be invigorated; to encourage children to read during the long winter nights, but also to become what he called the “new nucleus of an adult education movement”, and to curb isolationism: “an immense amount of good can be done everywhere . . . in the remotest hamlet and up in the hills – by improvement of the services”.
These were words and sentiments that would have been welcomed by Christina Keogh, librarian at the Irish Central Library, who had become a vocal spokeswoman on libraries generally. Keogh was an enthusiastic broadcaster about library matters on radio in the 1930s and was trenchant in her calls for an awakening of public and government interest in libraries. She insisted an efficient Irish library service “depends upon the librarian to an extent not generally realised”.
That observation is still relevant today. A report on the Open Libraries Pilot Service, published in June by the Local Government Management Agency (LGMA), raises the question of whether our libraries, in the long term, will be dependent on librarians.
The open libraries initiative, under the subheading “Opportunities for All”, is about extending opening hours to library members during unstaffed hours. In 2014, three libraries were approved for the pilot scheme, at Tullamore and Banagher in Offaly and Tubbercurry in Sligo. They remain open until 10pm, with swipecard access during unstaffed hours. In Tullamore in 2015, visits during the unstaffed hours accounted for just 9 per cent of all visits, which means 91 per cent of all visits took place when staff were present, but the report concludes “users seem to value the service more, respect the civic space and display a stronger sense of community ownership of the library”.
These conclusions hardly seem merited on the back of such statistics, but the report recommends the service should be extended across the broader library service. Of course there are strong arguments in favour of increased access and a more flexible library service, but a new group, Staff Our Libraries, has raised legitimate concerns about where all this is heading. The LGMA maintains that staffed hours will not be reduced, but pressures to cut staff payroll costs may well provide straitened local authorities with the excuse to do just that.
Another fear is that the scheme represents an extension of the wider trend towards reducing human interaction. Many people who prefer to do their banking in branch have become increasingly frustrated at the absence of staff to talk to them and handle their business amidst the relentless drive for people to do their banking online and remotely.
There are also ongoing fears that post offices, especially those in remote locations, because of deteriorating finances at An Post, will once again be fighting for survival. And who has not been driven demented by help or customer query lines that tell you how important your call is, but not so important as to have a live voice at the other end?
Self-service technology has many advantages, but it should not be allowed to take precedence to the extent that it will replace public space and social interaction. Open Libraries cannot provide the services experienced staff can; many library users need assistance and libraries have to be staffed by those with knowledge to be true to their mission.
Librarians have pointed out that the Open Library scheme has the potential to “undermine the democratic foundations on which the library system was built”, restricting access to registered members and those who have the technological tools and resources to self-service their book pursuits.
There is also the question of the role of the library service and its staff in counteracting loneliness, isolation and unemployment. In 2012, Irish writer Dermot Bolger wrote movingly about how, when he lost his mother as a child, “libraries saved my life”; he characterised libraries as “true centres of the community” and “the last truly democratic spaces, where everybody is equal . . . in libraries we become citizens, not consumers.”
It would be sadly ironic if the centrality of public libraries to community life was undermined by an initiative called Open Libraries.