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