A good book, peace and quiet, and it is all free — what’s not to like?

Put down the tablet and the smart­phone, and sup­port a new ini­tia­tive to re­vive our li­braries, writes So­phie Don­ald­son

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - News -

‘With so much tech­nol­ogy, our li­braries were at risk of be­ing dor­mant’

IT’S the sec­ond week of Jan­uary, so have you em­barked on a dig­i­tal de­tox yet? Are you hop­ing to un­plug, recharge and re­set?

More than any other time of year, Jan­uary is when we take stock of our screen time and vow to have less of it. A week away from the daily grind, in which we are thought to check our phones 55 times a day, throws into sharp re­lief the detri­men­tal ef­fects of be­ing so dig­i­tally de­pen­dent.

We re­solve to log off ear­lier, lit­er­ally un­plug more and buy an alarm clock so it’s not the phone we reach for first thing in the morn­ing. How­ever, it’s about now that those res­o­lu­tions are swal­lowed by loom­ing dead­lines, early morn­ings, the back-to-school dash — and sud­denly, oh my God, it’s some­how April.

Those nov­els we were given re­main un­touched on the bed­side ta­ble and as we scroll with itchy eyes through our feed in an at­tempt to fall asleep, de­spite know­ing that the blue light emit­ted from de­vices makes it even harder to nod off, those dig­i­tal­free days we en­vis­aged are rel­e­gated to next year’s res­o­lu­tions list.

Our de­pen­dence on tech­nol­ogy has be­come a mal­ady of modern life. More and more, we yearn for sim­pler things like the plea­sure of los­ing a few hours to a good book, rather than fall­ing into a Face­book rab­bit hole for the whole of a Satur­day morn­ing.

Wouldn’t it be won­der­ful if there was a space that was calm and quiet, filled with nooks to nes­tle into with an ab­sorb­ing read? How much bet­ter if this space was, in fact, crammed with loads of books, for free, with rel­a­tively few com­put­ers and ab­so­lutely no­body jab­ber­ing loudly on their phone.

Surely we’d all love an oa­sis of calm just like this, dot­ted con­ve­niently near our home or place of work, where we could nip into on a lunch-break or rainy Satur­day af­ter­noon, pe­rus­ing the aisles crammed full of won­der­ful books you haven’t yet read, breath­ing deeply to in­hale the com­fort­ing scent of paper.

As it turns out, these places al­ready ex­ist — just about.

With the ad­vent of so much be­guil­ing tech­nol­ogy, our pub­lic li­braries were at risk of be­ing left dor­mant but a five-year plan from the De­part­ment of Ru­ral and Com­mu­nity De­vel­op­ment, launched last June, is seek­ing to al­most dou­ble ac­tive mem­ber­ship by 2022.

Two weeks ago, all ex­ist­ing fines on over­due books were abol­ished, as was the very con­cept of late fees. The move is one el­e­ment of a wider strat­egy aimed at en­tic­ing peo­ple back into these pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions. It is en­tirely pos­si­ble the an­ti­dote to our in­creas­ingly drain­ing dig­i­tal cul­ture has been there all along.

As a child, I adored go­ing to the li­brary. Be­ing some­what book­ish, I could lose hours trail­ing and up down the shelves, care­fully stock­pil­ing a hoard of books which was painstak­ingly whit­tled down to the max­i­mum six ti­tles to be bor­rowed. As an adult, the only time I have fre­quented a li­brary was for a col­lege as­sign­ment a few years ago, and I haven’t been back. It’s not down to a lack of read­ing — it’s still my favourite pas­time, al­though sadly I have much less time than my 11-year-old self did to while away the hours with my nose be­tween the pages. As an ar­dent reader, I’m not alone — book sales have con­tin­ued to rocket in the past few years, which would in­di­cate there are more ea­ger read­ers than ever.

So why aren’t more of us fre­quent­ing li­braries?

Cer­tainly smart­phones and tablets have di­verted our at­ten­tion from a good old-fash­ioned paper­back, al­though that trend is now well and truly on the wane.

An­other likely fac­tor is the pro­lif­er­a­tion of cheap books via the in­ter­net. As a teenager, I could not have af­forded to keep my book­ish habit afloat had pub­lic li­braries not ex­isted.

Now, how­ever, web­sites such as Ama­zon and Ebay sell books for less than the price of postage, while other cut-price web­sites like the Book De­pos­i­tory can op­er­ate on the cheap with­out the over­heads of a bricks-and­mor­tar store while keep­ing huge amounts of in­ven­tory in ware­houses.

The vast­ness of the in­ter­net means that al­most any ti­tle is avail­able — bought sec­ond­hand, it can be yours for a pit­tance.

Per­haps it’s an im­age thing, which is be­ing dealt with in part with the abo­li­tion of fees. Li­braries, and those who work there, tend to have a sort of fusty im­age. Hope­fully this much­needed in­ter­ven­tion will give our pub­lic li­braries the 21st Cen­tury facelift they de­serve while re­tain­ing their time­less ap­peal.

QUIET READ: Li­braries can be an oa­sis of calm in our busy lives

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