Paean to a Public Treasure

by NJ McGarrigle

Let me ask you a question. Where can you go in your town or city that is stimulating, warm, interactive, comfortable, and available at almost any time you wish, and most significantly, free and open to everyone?

Yes, learned reader, you’ve guessed correctly: the library.

Your public library is often the beating heart of any town or city, continuously pumping its flow of knowledge like a lifeblood to the people passing through its doors (upwards of 16 million visits a year according to the Irish Library Council); at its most basic, it provides us with the tools for our advancement. Having long been a centre for learning, the public library gives a focal point for the community it serves and engenders a feeling of togetherness and social cohesion.

Sadly, they are under increasing threat in this age of austerity, with the Government scrambling for belt-tightening measures and cuts from some of the softest targets in the state. The previous Fianna Fáil government planned to reduce the amount of money spent on public library stock by 25 per cent (a decline from €13.5m in 2009 to €10m in 2010). It’s depressing to think that when it comes to fundamental reforms, our elected representatives look at cutting back on a service that is a catalyst for learning and the benefit of our citizens.

Libraries have a crucial role to play if education is to be a truly egalitarian concept. If politicians continue to espouse the vague mantra of a ‘knowledge-based economy’ for the future of the country, then we need these beacons of scholarship to light the way. Softening the blow somewhat, Fine Gael’s Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government Phil Hogan declared a new Capital Programme for libraries, with the majority of the money to be spent on new libraries and refurbishment of older buildings and mobile units.(Could the other coalition partner, the Labour party, justify any major cuts to this service when a founding father of Irish socialism, James Connolly, spent much of his time educating himself in the National Library?). Hogan’s announcement is heartening and one sees the incentive of putting resources into our libraries when visiting Rathmines public library, which reopened its doors after being closed for a number of years due to major renovation work.

The new-look building is impressive as you enter. Leaving the bustling village behind, you immediately get the feeling of entering a space for the mind: a place where one can discover, learn and think in quiet contemplation. The building juxtaposes modern fixtures with the original architecture, to give it a feeling of relaxed grandeur, like a wealthy, old uncle reading an e-book in his favourite armchair.

Sunlight pours in through the large Georgian windows, painting the white stucco walls in bright light to give a sense of enlightenment and potential empowerment: the luminescence glows with an energy that anything is possible; it’s up to you how you shine. The staff members are friendly and helpful; all the necessary facilities are there (aside from books, there are lots of computers, newspapers and periodicals, a children’s area, a lift for access to the different floors, tea and coffee). But the most important feature is the people utilising these tools – our library is only as good as we are and vice-versa. Our relationship is symbiotic. A computer is redundant unless it is manned by one of us, as a book has little point in being written if it remains unread.

Stuttgart City Library| Yi Architects

To see such a microcosm of learning and a culture of self-improvement is inspiring and reaffirms one of the reasons for our existence: the pursuit of knowledge and betterment of ourselves and the world around us. Without doubt, the library remains a great facilitator in helping to do this. Rathmines was throbbing with activity during my recent visit: a pensioner was reading about Syria in the newspaper and the latest dissent blossoming from the ‘Arab Spring’; a teenager watched space footage courtesy of NASA on the web, while hastily scribbling notes in a dog-eared jotter; a young woman was happily perched at the wonderful, old wooden reading desks on the second floor, engrossed in a book on flower arranging, to give just a few examples. Outside of universities and schools, where else in society do we have such a centre allowing us to increase our knowledge and understanding of our world and everything else that goes with it?

In the UK there are plans to have libraries run by volunteers and community groups to save money, as council cuts threaten their existence. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) recently reported on pilot projects that included basing libraries in churches and local halls, self-service borrowing points for books in charity shops and integrating services such as health centres into existing libraries.

The Conservative government – who still desperately clings on to its ‘Big Society’ brainwave – claim that such moves would be innovative and allow creative partnerships between the private and public sector, and would enable libraries to remain ‘relevant’ in the 21st century. But libraries, which date as far back as the time of Alexandria, will never be irrelevant as long as there is thirst for knowledge.

One abiding memory of visiting the Central Library in my time living in Belfast was always spotting, without fail, a certain man in the large reading room who, it would be fair to say had all the signs of a drink problem. There he was: lying face down, with a large art book beside him, happily visiting the land of nod. He never snored, so did not disturb anyone, but the look of deep contentment on his face was priceless (so too was watching him taking the studied bother of pulling down a book on renaissance painting to strategically place in front of him) as he descended into slumber, safe in the knowledge that he could do so without any danger in the warm, hushed, softly-lit room.

The library provided a place where he could rest easy for a couple of hours, without any worry about being harassed. It might not have done much for his reading, but it certainly did a lot for his peace of mind. Libraries provide sanctuary for many people, for various reasons, and in various ways. We should deal with our places of learning in the same way the staff in Belfast did with the man in the reading room: let them be.