Read­ing mat­ters: Li­braries are prov­ing their worth

Hard logic might sug­gest that pub­lic li­braries have had their day but in­stead, they’re be­ing re-imag­ined for a new era. vis­its Dublin’s Kevin Street Li­brary, newly re­opened and prov­ing a vi­tal com­mu­nity space

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - AGENDA - NO CLO­SURES VI­CIOUS CY­CLE

Del­i­cate wire­frame clouds hang from the high ceil­ing. Be­side a herd of bright plas­tic ele­phants and a mul­ti­coloured arm­chair the size and shape of a throne, two lit­tle boys are play­ing with a large plas­tic pen­guin. As they jump on its back and rock it from side to side, se­nior li­brar­ian Phil Scan­lan glances over and smiles. “Pen­guin’s hav­ing a busy day to­day,” she says.

“You’ve just missed a knee-high storm,” her col­league Ciaran Hur­ley says, col­lect­ing dis­carded pic­ture books from the couches. “We’ve had a few of those!”

The boys aban­don the pen­guin in favour of the play­ground-size slide that takes up most of one wall. Five-year-old Emma looks up from a com­mu­nal com­puter ta­ble and nods ap­prov­ingly. “The slide is so much fun,” she says, then turns back to the game she’s play­ing on Friv, whis­per­ing, “red ball, come back to me.”

The read­ing room next door is quiet and cosy. A teenage girl is curled up in an arm­chair read­ing, her feet propped up on a sec­ond chair. Her train­ers are be­side her on the floor. She glances up, tak­ing in ev­ery new ar­rival. When she pads back out to the chil­dren’s sec­tion in her socks, she re­turns with a new book in less than a minute. Kevin Street Li­brary has barely been open a fort­night, yet the staff know her by name and rou­tine. She al­ways comes in alone, and stays for most of the day.

“There are very few civic spa­ces left that are free,” says Bren­dan Teel­ing, act­ing Dublin City li­brar­ian. “In a li­brary, no de­mands are made of you. You are not re­quired to read a book or use a com­puter. Peo­ple go to a li­brary for all sorts of rea­sons; it’s not just about re­lax­ing or study­ing. Some peo­ple find com­fort in the com­pany of strangers, even though they may not want to talk to them. It’s just nice know­ing other peo­ple are there. It’s a calm place,” he adds. Then, ges­tur­ing in the di­rec­tion of the chil­dren’s li­brary, “And a noisy one!”

In a busy com­mer­cial and res­i­den­tial area five min­utes’ walk from St Stephen’s Green, Kevin Street Li­brary opened last month fol­low­ing a €3.7m ren­o­va­tion. Orig­i­nally built in 1904, when it closed in 2013, the build­ing was leak­ing, clut­tered, and creak­ing at the seams. Five years later it is more a reimag­in­ing of the very con­cept of a ‘li­brary’ than a re­fur­bish­ment.

“It was al­ways go­ing to stay a li­brary. That was never in doubt,” Teel­ing says. “It was a huge job, even the roof had to be re­placed… so we took the op­por­tu­nity to re­store the weather vane. Some of the de­tail evolved or changed along the way, but the ideas, the vi­sion, didn’t. We wanted four big spa­ces; three read­ing rooms and a com­puter/ study room up­stairs with the two es­sen­tials for mod­ern life: power and Wi-Fi.”

The front door leads into a bright cor­ri­dor wide enough to com­fort­ably ac­com­mo­date a com­puter ta­ble. In the adult li­brary, books stand to at­ten­tion on ta­bles, their cov­ers cheer­ily fac­ing the open door. Large shelv­ing units on wheels oc­cupy the main floor space. The build­ing’s Ed­war­dian her­itage is ob­vi­ous: the wooden wain­scot­ing and win­dows have been re­stored, and orig­i­nal shelv­ing re­moved, treated and re­turned. In an el­e­gant han­dover from old to new, a Vic­to­rian roll­top desk sits to one side of the is­sues ta­ble. Up­stairs in the com­puter room, any­one with an adult li­brary card can book time on one of 10 com­put­ers — in­clud­ing PCs with as­sis­tive tech­nol­ogy — or use the Wi-Fi. There are four spa­cious sin­gle desks and a com­mu­nal study ta­ble.

Bren­dan Teel­ing has seen pub­lic li­braries’ for­tunes ebb and flow.

He joined as a li­brary as­sis­tant straight out of school in 1979. He left some years later to study at UCD, only to re­join as a li­brar­ian in the 1990s. Since then, he has run the In­ter­na­tional Dublin Lit­er­ary Award and the (now abol­ished) Li­brary Coun­cil, and es­tab­lished Ire­land’s Pub­lic Lend­ing Re­mu­ner­a­tion sys­tem, through which au­thors are paid for the loans of their books by pub­lic li­braries. “When times were tough, Dublin City Coun­cil didn’t close any li­brary,” Teel­ing says.

“I have to give full credit to the hard-work­ing li­brary staff. We main­tained open­ing hours and now we’ve even be­gun to re­cruit again. We’re in a good place now. We can take on some new staff and do up some build­ings thanks to the sup­port of the city coun­cil mem­bers and se­nior man­age­ment. We are al­ways de­vel­op­ing, al­ways look­ing for where we should be go­ing.”

A good place in­deed: in July, the Min­is­ter for Ru­ral and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment Michael Ring an­nounced a €7.8m in­vest­ment pack­age for dig­i­tal ser­vices and fa­cil­i­ties in up to 300 pub­lic li­braries. The aim of the en­thu­si­as­ti­cally-ti­tled Our Pub­lic Li­braries 2022: In­spir­ing, Con­nect­ing and Em­pow­er­ing Com­mu­ni­ties is to de­liver a mod­ern, pro­gres­sive li­brary ser­vice.

Teel­ing agrees that li­braries have to sup­port lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties rather than just ex­ist within them. “Be­ing un­der the con­trol of a lo­cal author­ity means li­braries can be more re­spon­sive to the needs of their own lo­cal com­mu­nity,” he says. “A na­tional, cen­tralised ser­vice can’t re­spond in the same way.”

His next plan is to look at com­mu­ni­ties the cur­rent sys­tem doesn’t serve so well, such as chil­dren liv­ing in home­less ac­com­mo­da­tion or fam­ily hubs, or those liv­ing un­der di­rect pro­vi­sion. “None of th­ese are cur­rently ex­cluded, but some groups need ad­di­tional sup­port to ac­cess our ser­vices.”

The very con­cept of li­braries was a hot topic re­cently. IKEA’s an­nounce­ment that it was part­ner­ing with the Man Booker Prize to cre­ate read­ing rooms where the pub­lic could read and take away a copy of the longlisted ti­tles, gen­er­ated a con­sid­er­able “we al­ready have them; they’re called li­braries”, pub­lic re­sponse.

There was a time, Teel­ing says, when the Ir­ish pub­lic li­brary ser­vices looked to the UK as the beacon and tried to em­u­late what was hap­pen­ing there. “But now, apart from a few ex­am­ples, we are far ahead of them.” Since 2010, hun­dreds of lo­cal li­braries have been handed over by UK coun­cils to the com­mu­nity.

Ear­lier this year, Northamp­ton­shire County Coun­cil came un­der fire for its pro­posal to close 21 of 36 li­braries to save money. One es­ti­mate quoted by the UK’s Li­brary Cam­paign is that 500 of the coun­try’s 3,850 li­braries are now run by vol­un­teers. And, as Teel­ing says: “With the best will in the world, vol­un­teer or com­mu­nity-led li­braries just can’t de­liver a pro­fes­sional ser­vice. It cre­ates a slow de­cline: less money is in­vested, so the ser­vice isn’t as good, so fewer peo­ple use them... It’s a vi­cious cir­cle.”

Back in the read­ing room, El­iz­a­beth is brows­ing the fic­tion shelves. Her daugh­ter sits nearby, read­ing a preg­nancy book. “I’m learn­ing,” she says, “I’m due in Novem­ber.” El­iz­a­beth lives on Thomas Street nearby, and re­ally missed the li­brary. “Peo­ple de­pend on it,” she says. “I’m thrilled it’s back.”

In the hall­way, two girls aged four and six have just got their first li­brary cards. “We’ve been watch­ing, wait­ing for it to open,” their mum Jen­nifer says. “We’re very ex­cited!” They’re not alone: there were 282 new sign ups in Kevin Street Li­brary’s first week, and 917 books were bor­rowed. On a sin­gle day dur­ing the sec­ond week, 260 peo­ple came through the door.

Next up for ren­o­va­tion is Coolock Li­brary, now 40 years old and feeling its age. “A li­brary will al­ways be a phys­i­cal space, a build­ing,” Teel­ing says. “Books are never go­ing to go away. The huge de­mand for e-books lev­elled off two years ago and hasn’t changed much since. Print is as pop­u­lar as ever. The ser­vices we pro­vide are within walls and on­line, but it’s through peo­ple you en­gage.

“Peo­ple con­nect with peo­ple. Our aim is to be open 54 hours a week over six days. We spend a lot of money buy­ing things and we say to peo­ple, okay, we have this and here’s what you can do with it. There are peo­ple who think a li­brary isn’t for them. But it is. It’s an in­di­vid­ual space and a com­mu­nity space. It’s your space.”

In the chil­dren’s li­brary, five-year-old Emma waves good­bye to the room. “I’ll be back to­mor­row,” she calls out. “See you then.”

There was a time when the Ir­ish pub­lic li­brary ser­vices looked to the UK as the beacon. ‘But now, apart from a few ex­am­ples, we are far ahead of them,’ Teel­ing says

PHOTO: GERRY MOONEY

Re­vised and reimag­ined: Bren­dan Teel­ing, act­ing Dublin City Li­brar­ian, in the re­cently re­fur­bished Kevin Street Li­brary.

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