Staffless Libraries in Ireland: A Brief Appreciation of Librarians

Former minister Mary O’Rourke penned an open letter to Simon Coveney regarding plans to roll out staffless libraries across Ireland. It’s worth a read, and I certainly think it’s worth putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and writing Minister Coveney a few more letters to complain about what most certainly is a daft idea. The notion of a library without human librarians disturbs me, and no doubt disturbs many of my colleagues. I feel compelled to write about my experiences with librarians here, to later be copied and pasted into an email to Minister Coveney.

As a bookworm, bibliophile, page-turner, constant reader, researcher, writer, teacher, learner, person, the library has been a central point throughout  my life. The first library I really got to know was my own: a small white shelf above my childhood bed upon which sat a selection of thin, brightly coloured books that I read over and over and over again. At first I was so short that I had to stand on my bed to take down a book to read, usually as quietly as possible so my parents would think I was not awake past my bedtime. Eventually I could reach my hand up and grab whatever title took my fancy until the shelf collapsed and came off the wall due to the weight of books.

The second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth and tenth libraries that came into my life were the ones that occupied the corners of each classroom of Scoil Bhríde where I spent several years progressing from little hardback Ladybirds to my first of many adventures with Harry Potter and Co. In these shelves I learned about cataloguing and caring for books, borrowing and returning, reviewing, browsing and the joy of sharing and discussing stories with friends and teachers.

The next library was the one on the ground floor of Coláiste Muire Réalt Na Mara. This one was bigger, the shelves were taller and fuller. The sections didn’t just have fiction, but languages, encyclopedias, history, sciences, and so on. It had wood panelling, big windows, and framed letter from Seamus Heaney on the wall. This library had a dedicated librarian. Her name was Pam and over the years she recommended books, showed me how to set up my first email and search the internet, and helped me to research various projects. Pam was a gem, a friend, a researcher, a fellow reader, an editor, and an expert on many subjects. She held the respect of the entire student body because she clearly cared about her vocation and the students she worked with. I remember Pam working with us during our Junior Certificate Art Projects. It almost felt like she was going to be graded alongside us. She encouraged our studies of artists, talked to us about our artworks and what kind of art might help to influence our creations. She admired our work and cared about the outcomes.

After secondary school I enrolled in University College Cork and entered the Boole Library for the first time. Because my previous libraries did not require cards or codes, this was a new and initially daunting library experience. The staff guided and explained and I found my way. I am still in UCC, now as an assistant lecturer. Librarians introduced me to special collections, information literacy, databases, reference management systems and much more besides. Down through the years I could not have negotiated this library without the help and kindness of various staff members there. I would have struggled to find the inspiration and the material resources needed to complete projects without having someone to ask when the online databases did not return what I was looking for.

In the Boole, I also began to understand that a library is not just a place to borrow and return books. A few years ago I co-organised an art exhibition in there. I worked with staff members, used their exhibition space and enjoyed seeing people perusing the artwork whenever I went in to use the library in the weeks during which the exhibition ran. I have attended many talks, readings and workshops. I learned as much, if not more, in there as I did in my lectures. The library is not just a place where people enter, take/return a book, and leave. It is a site of conversations, collaborations, and community.

As it stands the plan for staffless libraries in Ireland does not include a move to cut library staff, just to not staff the later opening hours. But I cannot help but worry that this initial, seemingly harmless, initiative could lead to a decline in librarians in the future. Perhaps this an austerity-related phobia that stems from experiences like finishing my final year BA exams and seeing a gigantic headline on the front page of a national newspaper along the lines of “THE WORST YEAR TO GRADUATE FROM COLLEGE.” Perhaps it stems from feeling like I live in a country defined by cutbacks, the collective morale of its inhabitants already cut to ribbons by politicians who would consider giving themselves a €5,000 pay rise instead of giving pensioners an extra fiver a week. I digress.

If you take away the librarian, you may as well shut the doors and set up book vending machines on street corners instead. You will be gutting libraries, of their brains, brawn, and beating hearts. Most book lovers will agree that one of the greatest pleasures of reading is talking about what we have read. Many readers credit librarians as the people who introduced them to their favourite books and authors. Many researchers thank librarians in the acknowledgements sections of their books and projects because they could not have completed certain tasks or found particular resources as easily if it were not for the kind, dedicated human being who sat with them and figured it all out. Unless you can automate all of these subjective joys and practicalities of the library, you have no business bypassing the people who make these things happen every single day.

There is a lovely vocabulary around books and book-wormery. Some, like hamartia, describe certain emotions that occur during reading. Some describe destruction; have you ever heard of libricide? It means the killing of a book. What word will describe the killing of librarianship as a career? If this turns out to be a slippery slope of career deletionism, what will capture the loss of those skilled, dedicated, trained experts that take care of some of our most important community properties?

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