VICTORIA WHITE: I’ve changed my mind — ‘Open Libraries’ are the way to go

An automatic locking system and a “radio frequency identification system” means it would be possible to keep libraries open out of hours, every day of the year, writes Victoria White.

I can see their faces in my mind’s eye. I don’t know any of their names but some of them know mine. They have been a constant in my life from the time I sat on the floor reading picture books to toddlers to today when I approach the poor blighters with half the title of a book I want immediately.

My librarians. I don’t know where I’d be without them. I don’t know where I’d be without the three libraries I frequent, triangulated from my house in south Dublin. For someone like me, who has no job and no work-place, the public library has been the way I have kept learning, kept trying new things.

The librarians have found me books which have changed my life. Dundrum Library unearthed Joseph Robins’ extraordinary account of children abandoned to charity in Ireland, The Lost Children. In Rathmines they found me Paradise Lost, 1922 by Giles Milton, a searing account of the expulsion of the Greeks from Ottoman Smyrna.

In the ILAC Centre Library they dug up the original Second Commission on the Status of Women report. Big ideas encountered on mundane shopping trips with the kids, books borrowed and thrown in with the rashers and washing powder.

And sometimes the library was just a refuge. Rathmines will always be my favourite, a huge cathedral of a Carnegie Library in the middle of the urban village, with a ring of couches in the middle where young and old read the newspapers or stare into space.

I’ve changed my mind — ‘Open Libraries’ are the way to go

I used to put in time there with my kids between school and swimming. They did their homework, I dosed or wandered through the shelves and took down numbers from the notice board.

I don’t think I ever walked away without thinking: “Isn’t this wonderful.” The library seems like the only place left in Ireland where you can linger without being moved on, asked for money.

Except if you always forget to bring the books back on time.

And now it’s all changing. So-called “staffless” libraries have been piloted in Sligo and Offaly, whereby libraries open in the early morning, late at night and on Sundays but without staff.

Members of the public let themselves in using a pin number and can browse, borrow, return, use the wifi and photocopier, overseen only by a Radio Frequency Identification which “knows when someone is in the building and can monitor behaviour”.

The Local Government Management Agency’s report on the pilot staffless scheme recommends its rollout nationally, and apparently it is being actively considered by 12 councils. SIPTU, which represents most librarians, is against the so-called “Open Library” scheme and has taken a decision in principle to take industrial action if it goes ahead. There were protests last Sunday in Dún Laoghaire, where the stupendous new DLR Lexicon was open and staffless.

But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a staffless library if it is an extension of the existing service not a substitute. I waded into this debate to line up with the worthies who have been calling the Open Library idea the end of civilisation.

But I’ve changed my mind. Technology has changed what we can do. We already borrow and return books automatically. An automatic locking system and a “radio frequency identification system” means it would be possible to keep the libraries open out of hours, from 8 am to 10 am, every day of the year.

National Library Dubiln
National Library Dubiln

The idea has been trialled in Denmark and Finland and it has not resulted in any reduction in staffed hours. Instead, it has led to huge increases in use of libraries — up 23% and 59% to cite just two cases. A third of new users in Denmark are under 35. Particularly compelling is the image of the library lit up on dark mornings or late at night, like a lighthouse over a turbulent sea. Happy days if you love your family and your house is quiet. But I’m thinking of all those Leaving Certificate students with nowhere decent to study.

Parents who need a break from crying babies. Spouses who need a break from each other. Me, I fancy the library on Christmas Day.

As the SIPTU spokesman suggested to me, much library use outside staffed hours is not about books at all and it’s true that some other societal solution could be found. But why not use the library?

I don’t believe the librarians’ opposition is really to “Open Libraries” rather than to the 20% reduction in staff which the service has suffered since 2008.

It’s true that automation will inevitably result in staff reduction. The library service is in constant evolution and the “controlled open access” to books we enjoy today was a novelty 100 years ago when most books were accessed by librarians.

But clearly the funding cuts are going far beyond that. The main library in Sligo town stands temporarily closed due to staffing shortages caused by the Government’s demand for a 42% reduction in council staff.

Tubbercurry and Ballymote are both under imminent threat. The “staffless library” has become a symbol for librarians of how devalued their service is.

They’re rightly worried that staffless hours will replace staff, and investment in technology will replace investment in books.

None of this is inevitable. We could use technology to keep our libraries burning bright from early morning to late at night but with the absolute proviso that staffed hours must be maintained or extended.

I’ve changed my mind — ‘Open Libraries’ are the way to go

A library staffed by librarians is offering a completely different service to a staffless library. A clear distinction can be drawn between them. One should not cancel out the other.

The “staffless” option is only acceptable outside regular retail hours. I think libraries should be open and staffed on Sundays, the day most of us have most leisure. IMPACT would, it seems, oppose such a suggestion.

A spokesman called Saturday work “anti-social” and complained that it attracts “a tiny premium.” But these are, relatively speaking, details. Steel magnate and anti-imperialist Andrew Carnegie, in one of the greatest philanthropic gestures of all time, laid the foundation of the public library system in these islands, funding 80 libraries from Youghal to Rathkeale, from Millstreet to Listowel, from Cappoquin to Cahersiveen, from Tralee to Waterford.

When Cork’s Carnegie Library was burned down by British forces in 1920, City Librarian James Wilkinson would not rest until it was replaced.

We need to recover that zeal. The rare media focus which the “staffless library” protests have attracted must be harnessed quickly and wisely by those who love libraries to safe-guard their place at the centre of our society.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a staffless library if it is an extension of the existing service not a substitute


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