Hearing that libraries are going to be the locus for health-promotion programmes in the coming year prompted me to do a little research over the last two weeks.
My report to Examiner readers comes “caveatted up to the gills”, as some famous writer whose name escapes me once said. It is not statistically valid. In fact, it’s not valid at all, because I simply asked people I encountered at work how they felt about libraries.
The question had the satisfactory effect of causing a double-take: Libraries? Haven’t thought of libraries in forever. After that two-second pause, however, a remarkable thing happened. The people being questioned nearly always began to smile. And nod. Some of them said they loved their local library and brought their children to it. One of them said she felt extremely grateful to her library because it had been her refuge during months of agonising job-searching during the recession.
Through use of the library’s computers, she eventually landed herself a wonderful job, but, she says, she won’t forget the quiet warmth of the library and the silent nods exchanged between regular customers.
“A career expert had told me that I must not think of myself as unemployed, because I had a job during that period,” she remembers.
Her story is not typical, because you can’t genericise people who use libraries. But the common theme articulated about the library by young and old people alike was of a warm and welcoming place. Other than Mabs, I can think of no other State-funded entity so uniformly approved of by the cohort who use it. Even those who have ceased their regular use of libraries almost apologise for their infidelity. One said that an informal book circle had developed among about six friends, and that this had obviated the need to go to the library as often as he had in the past. It was almost an apology.
I have that same warm feeling about the institutions, not least because of a comment made by a librarian in Laytown, where we went on our summer holidays when I was a kid. The librarian, a silent old lady, always rose from her chair when we arrived, took me by the hand, and led me to a corner where she would sit me on the floor and open a new book she had chosen for me.
Because she never spoke, I never spoke either, which, for a four-year-old, was some achievement, but for the most part I had absorbed the rules of the place, breaking into song or other performance only now and again.
After one such performance, the librarian pulled my mortified mother aside and whispered to her: “That little girl will be an Abbey actress.”
Her whisper was so authoritative my mother went fishing to find out more about her, to learn that she was Maire Nic Shuibhlaigh, one of the early Abbey players who left the theatre because of ideological differences with Yeats and others. Her portrait by Jack B Yeats still hangs in the Abbey and whenever I’m in the theatre (where I was once a member of the repertory company for an inglorious six months), I look at the beautiful reserved expression and think, “You weren’t just a great actress. You were a great librarian, too.”
Because she did what great librarians do around the world: Create warm, welcoming places where a small girl on the cusp of a lifetime of reading could be spotted and helped.
It’s the same in the US. Watching students working together in branches of Barnes & Noble, the coast-to-coast chain of American bookstores, you might be forgiven for believing that, where young Americans are studious, B&N has replaced state-run book-lending institutions, but when the Pew Research Centre did a survey two years ago, not only did they find high usage among teens, but they found roughly half of all Americans had used a public library in the previous year.
That’s an astonishingly high score.
Eric Klinenberg, a professor of Sociology in New York has recently published a book (Palaces for the People, Bodley Head, 2018) on how to build a more equal and united society. Klinenberg is big on “social infrastructure”, by which is meant the public buildings and public spaces which cause people of different ages and ethnic background to meet and learn to interact with each other as equals.
“Libraries provide different benefits to young people,” he writes.
“Librarians help students with homework and offer after-school programmes in art, science, music, language, and math. They recommend books, authors, even entire genres to young people who are searching for something different but can’t yet name it.
“Libraries help children and teenagers feel responsible, to themselves and to their neighbours, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too. By doing all this, libraries also help families and caretakers.
"They provide a social space and shared activities for new parents, grandparents, and nannies who feel lonely, disconnected, or overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves. They help built friendships and support networks among neighbours who’d never met before taking a library class. They teach parenting skills to people who want or need them.
While Ireland may not have experienced that last use of the library, almost all of the other benefits are associated with it. Inclusiveness comes with the territory. You have to work hard to get expelled from a library or barred from one. The use of our libraries for healthy living programmes is a stroke of genius in its capacity to bring people of all ages together to create a fellowship which in turn can contribute to the development of the diverse, lively community we all need to have around us.
In his examination if how libraries function in the US, Klinenberg found that, for branch librarians, helping people find more than they’re looking for is the essence of the job. “There are few jobs that exist today where you’re really just doing good things as a public servant,” Klinenberg quotes one librarian as telling him.
“You’re not screwing anyone over. You’re not taking advantage of anybody. You’re just offering a free service.”