Praise over­due

How li­brar­i­ans are the guardians of lit­er­a­ture and com­mu­nity

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - DONALD CLARKE - Denyse Woods’s lat­est novel isOfSeaand­Sand WORDS BY DENYSE WOODS

ibrar­i­ans are among the most mis­un­der­stood pro­fes­sion­als any­where,” says Philip Croom, as­so­ciate dean of the Rare Books and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions Li­brary of the Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Cairo. “None of us thought we’d grow up to be one and then some­how we find our­selves work­ing with the most ex­tra­or­di­nary ob­jects, col­lec­tions and peo­ple.”

Many li­brar­i­ans might agree – the skills and qual­i­ties re­quired for the job are vast and var­ied. Lots of pad­dling be­neath the un­ruf­fled sur­face. Ir­ish li­brar­i­ans, in my pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ence, are ded­i­cated com­mu­ni­ca­tors, in­no­va­tors and im­pro­vis­ers and, in­spired by an ex­cep­tional Es­to­nian li­brar­ian, I re­cently de­cided to check in with some of their coun­ter­parts fur­ther afield.

The Prima Vista Lit­er­ary Fes­ti­val, held ev­ery May in the beau­ti­ful univer­sity town of Tartu, Es­to­nia, has es­tab­lished a strong link with Ir­ish writ­ing, largely thanks to An­nika Aas at Tartu Li­brary, which has more than 500 books by Ir­ish writ­ers. “My work as for­eign fic­tion spe­cial­ist brings me into con­tact with many in­ter­est­ing au­thors whom I in­vite – or try to in­vite – to our fes­ti­val,” Aas ex­plains.

When she or­dered Au­drey Magee’s The Un­der­tak­ing (2013), she and her col­leagues loved it. “I de­cided that this book de­serves to be trans­lated into Es­to­nian and the au­thor de­serves to be in­vited to Tartu.” The fes­ti­val only fea­tures books avail­able in Es­to­nian and Magee’s novel didn’t fit that brief, but this didn’t stop Aas. “Get­ting a book pub­lished in Es­to­nian isn’t easy, but af­ter ne­go­ti­at­ing with a dozen pub­lish­ers, I man­aged to get a deal with Petrone Print in Tallinn.” She also found a trans­la­tor.

“So, thanks also to Ire­land Lit­er­a­ture Ex­change and the Ir­ish Em­bassy, the au­thor read at the fes­ti­val in 2016, and that lively pre­sen­ta­tion, moder­ated by our writer Kätlin Kaldma, was the be­gin­ning of our Ir­ish con­nec­tion. From there, it was al­ready eas­ier to go on.”

Next up, an­other per­sonal favourite: Chris­tine Dwyer Hickey’s Tatty (2003). Turn­ing her per­sua­sive pow­ers once again on Petrone, Aas se­cured an­other deal. Dwyer Hickey read in Tartu in 2017. Mean­while, hav­ing won a res­i­dency at the Bib­lio­thèque Publique d’In­for­ma­tion, Aas spent six weeks vis­it­ing Parisian li­braries – along with her three-month-old baby. “Li­braries need to be con­stantly chang­ing,” she says, “and li­brar­i­ans need to be con­stantly learn­ing.”

Tartu Pub­lic Li­brary con­sists of a cen­tral build­ing, three branch li­braries, a cir­cu­la­tion unit and home vis­its. Its ser­vices in­clude bring­ing in ther­apy dogs for chil­dren and a lit­er­ary café for young read­ers. With 1,800 vis­i­tors per day (vir­tual vis­its in­creased by 21 per cent in 2017), the staff face chal­lenges: the older build­ing strug­gles to serve mod­ern re­quire­ments; salaries are not at­tract­ing a new gen­er­a­tion of li­brar­i­ans; and, fol­low­ing the eco­nomic crash, new ac­qui­si­tions were cur­tailed. Fund­ing is now slowly in­creas­ing but, as Aas points out, “the prices of books are in­creas­ing even faster!”

Although my novel Overnight to Inns­bruck took a dif­fer­ent route into Es­to­nian, its pub­li­ca­tion by Ersen (2017) was im­me­di­ately fol­lowed by an in­vi­ta­tion from Aas. She’s keep­ing sch­tum about her guest for 2019, but the Ir­ish-Es­to­nian lit­er­ary con­nec­tion is in ex­cel­lent hands.

The ac­ci­den­tal li­brar­ian

At the AUC’s New Cairo Cam­pus in Egypt, the Rare Books and Spe­cial Col­lec­tions Li­brary in­cludes a con­ser­va­tion lab, digi­ti­sa­tion cen­tre and re­gional ar­chi­tec­ture col­lec­tion. “The book col­lec­tions to­tal about 40,000 vol­umes,” ex­plains Philip Croom, “and the archival col­lec­tions fill 3,000 lin­ear me­tres of cab­i­nets.” The li­brary of­fers ac­cess to ex­cep­tional col­lec­tions of rare unedited pri­mary-source in­for­ma­tion – ar­eas of spe­cial­i­sa­tion in­clude Is­lamic art and ar­chi­tec­ture, Egyp­tol­ogy and con­tem­po­rary re­gional his­tory, and pho­tog­ra­phy. “We take very se­ri­ously our mis­sion to con­serve and con­vert unique and frag­ile in­for­ma­tion re­sources, which are of­ten at peril.”

Croom is an ac­ci­den­tal li­brar­ian. He al­ways loved li­braries but chose it as a ca­reer only af­ter dis­cov­er­ing the joys of re­search­ing spe­cial col­lec­tions and ar­chives. “I be­came fas­ci­nated with those won­der­ful arte­facts con­tain­ing a wealth of in­for­ma­tion. Imag­in­ing their par­cours through his­tory adds to the ex­cite­ment of work­ing with the rare and pre­cious.”

His am­bi­tion has al­ways been for this to be­come one of the great li­braries in the Mid­dle East. “It has the ex­tra­or­di­nary op­por­tu­nity to lo­cate and ac­quire ma­te­ri­als that add to the world’s knowl­edge. My time here has seen us ac­quire the Van-Leo Col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs, the en­tire works of ar­chi­tects Has­san Fathy and Ram­ses Wissa Wassef, sev­eral thou­sand Euro­pean rare books and the per­sonal li­brary of Boutros Boutros-Ghali. It is a great com­fort to know we have saved so much that oth­er­wise would have dis­ap­peared.”

Most read­ers come to ac­cess tra­di­tional sources – books and ar­chives – but the li­brary also of­fers a Dig­i­tal Archival Re­search Re­pos­i­tory and the RBSCL Dig­i­tal Col­lec­tions site that grows daily from dig­i­tal con­ver­sions of archival hold­ings. “Although bud­gets have not kept pace with in­fla­tion, we can in­creas­ingly rely on do­nated ar­chives.”

“I laugh when told, ‘oh, it must be won­der­ful to be able to read all day!’,” says Croom, who

“The most im­por­tant as­set of any li­brary goes home at night – the li­brary staff” –Ti­moth­yHealy

‘‘ Ir­ish li­brar­i­ans are ded­i­cated com­mu­ni­ca­tors, in­no­va­tors and im­pro­vis­ers and, in­spired by an ex­cep­tional Es­to­nian li­brar­ian, I re­cently de­cided to check in with some of their coun­ter­parts fur­ther afield

man­ages to read only at week­ends. “We’re ac­tu­ally run­ning a mid-sized cor­po­ra­tion here, with all the is­sues that en­tails!”

Broome Pub­lic Li­brary is in one of the most re­mote re­gions of Aus­tralia. A three-day drive from Perth, this for­mer pearling cap­i­tal is a place of con­trasts, where the red earth meets the In­dian Ocean and the weather throws up cy­clones in the wet sea­son and sunny blue skies in the dry.

“The pop­u­la­tion of 14,000 dou­bles from May to Septem­ber,” li­brary co­or­di­na­tor Sally Ea­ton tells me, “when we ex­pe­ri­ence an in­flux of over­seas vis­i­tors and ‘grey no­mads’ com­ing to en­joy the in­cred­i­ble nat­u­ral at­trac­tions”. Foot­fall in the li­brary also re­flects the weather – the av­er­age is 250 vis­its per day, but with much fewer in the hot months and many more when it’s cooler. As well as the multi­na­tional and mul­ti­lin­gual vis­i­tor base, the li­brary caters for young fam­i­lies and the town’s high in­dige­nous pop­u­la­tion. With a strong fo­cus on en­cour­ag­ing lit­er­acy in young peo­ple and sup­port­ing ev­ery­one in their search for knowl­edge and en­ter­tain­ment, it’s an im­por­tant meet­ing place.

Fund­ing re­stric­tions have cur­tailed in­ter-li­brary loans, which has in­creased pres­sure to pur­chase more lo­cal stock with lim­ited re­sources. The cli­mate presents an­other chal­lenge: high hu­mid­ity for six months of the year can re­sult in stock de­vel­op­ing mould.

Ea­ton is a blow-in. “I came to Broome be­cause I love the heat and was up for a chal­lenge!” A li­brar­ian for 31 years, she started as a vol­un­teer, took a post-grad course which led to chil­dren’s li­brar­i­an­ship, “and to­day I’m manag­ing a li­brary in the re­mote north of WA”. Closely in­volved with the com­mu­nity-driven Cor­ru­gated Lines: A Fes­ti­val of Words, she loves to in­no­vate. “A unique out­reach ser­vice we of­fer is beach books, whereby staff go to the mag­nif­i­cent Ca­ble Beach dur­ing the busy sea­son. We pro­mote the li­brary, read­ing and lit­er­acy and re­cy­cle do­nated books. It’s a pop­u­lar perk with the staff!”

Broome read­ers en­joy Aus­tralian au­thors – this is Tim Win­ton coun­try, af­ter all – par­tic­u­larly ru­ral ro­mances, and Ir­ish nov­els are avail­able too. “Books still trump our on­line ser­vices,” says Ea­ton, “but the li­brary is re­view­ing its oper­a­tions in line with chang­ing tech­nol­ogy. I’m ex­cited about where it could lead.”

Li­brar­i­ans might well be mis­un­der­stood, but nonethe­less th­ese guardians of lit­er­a­ture and com­mu­nity are pad­dling away be­tween the shelves, world­wide.

Left: Li­brar­ian An­nika Aas, whose Tartu Li­brary in Es­to­nia has a spe­cial in­ter­est in Ir­ish au­thors.

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